Colon cancer on the rise in young adults


March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

And although 90 percent of the cases of the disease occur in people over the age of 50, studies show colorectal cancer is on the rise in younger patients.

Emily Collins was diagnosed with colon cancer in May 2011. She’s just 31 years old.

“In comes the gastroenterologist with this awful look on his face and he said, well, we found this enormous tumor,” says Collins. “I felt perfectly healthy. I had no idea I had advanced stage cancer growing inside of me. It was really completely out of the blue.”

Charles S. Fuchs, MD, MPHCharles Fuchs, MD, MPH

Charlie Fuchs, MD, MPH, director of the gastrointestinal cancer center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says colon cancer often is found in its late stages as common symptoms of disease are mistaken for other medical issues. These symptoms can include blood in the stool, changes in bowel habits, and abdominal discomfort.

“These symptoms can arise for reasons totally unrelated to cancer, so one shouldn’t conclude that if you have any of those symptoms that you have colon cancer,” says Fuchs, “but you should bring it to the attention of you primary care physician who can make an assessment and decide if any further evaluation is needed.”

For Collins, the news she had an advanced stage of colon cancer was devastating. “As a newlywed, I was focusing on new life with my husband Greg,” says Collins.  “Instead, I started on a rigorous schedule of treatment to treat the disease that included months of chemotherapy, radiation and then major surgery.”

Studies show the disease is highly curable when found in its earliest stages. Fuchs says  that people can reduce their chance of developing colon cancer by staying in shape as obesity is one of the leading risk factor for the disease. “You should also limit eating red meat to no more than two times a week and limit the number of alcoholic drinks to no more than one a day,” says Fuchs. “Studies also show aspirin and vitamin D can help prevent colon cancer.”

As for Collins, the focus now is finishing treatment and staying healthy. “I’m so grateful for every day that I feel okay,” says Collins. “I’m so grateful to be alive, facing that kind of news really does make you value the things that you have.”

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