Colon cancer targeting younger generations

New cancer risk for millennials

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- It's the health warning you don't want to ignore.

Colon cancer is targeting a growing number of people in their 20s and 30s, and what's worse, the cancer is already in the later stages.

If you're asking why it's because doctors aren't screening for this in their younger patients, but one local physician says with new information from the American Cancer Society, they should start.

"This is not in the textbooks," Dr. Martin Mark, with Norton Gastroenterology Consultants of Louisville said.

It's a disease we once thought was our parent's problem. That's no longer the case.

The American Cancer Society's study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that someone born in 1990 has twice the risk of developing early colon cancer as someone born in 1950. This same someone has four times the risk of developing early rectal cancer. 

"There's been a doubling in the amount of colon cancer we're seeing, and even more worrying is there's been a tripling of rectal cancer, in people in their 20s and 30s," Dr. Mark said.

Even scarier, if you fall into this age group, you likely won't know you have this disease until the symptoms appear when cancer has likely spread. That's because most doctors don't consider colon cancer for their younger patients. Dr. Mark says that mentality needs to change. 

"I think we're only kidding ourselves if we think we're flawless in this effort. We've got a ways to go," Dr. Mark said.

It's important to know the majority of colorectal cancer is still found in people who are 50 and older, and the rates of diagnoses in those generations are steadily dropping thanks to colonoscopies. 

"The idea for colonoscopies, is we're looking for things like this, polyps in the colon," Dr. Mark said. 

The larger in size, the more worrisome.

So why are young adults seeing an increase in cancer rates? It's baffling doctors across the country.

"We've been seeing anecdotally, a lot of young people coming in with a variety non-specific symptoms such as bleeding and change in bowel habits and we've done a colonoscopy and found cancer in the 20-year-olds," Dr. Mark said.

Louisville mom, Keisha Dalton, had just turned 30.

"I started having symptoms with like blood in my stool, and I was like, oh my God, what's going on? I thought maybe because I'd just had a baby a year prior to that, that it was hemorrhoids," Dalton said.

The bleeding continued and days later, Dalton's doctor recommended a colonoscopy.

"I remember the doctor telling me, you are way too young for this. And I'm thinking, too young for what? I didn't even know they were screening for cancer," Dalton said.

Diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, the doctors wasted no time beginning treatment.

"I'm like, I want a second opinion. He said, you don't have time for a second opinion," Dalton said.

The colonoscopy happened on a Tuesday. A port went in Wednesday, and by Monday, Dalton was taking chemo.

"Within a week, my whole life changed," Dalton said.

Chemo, radiation, surgery and possibly the most trying for Dalton, was a colostomy bag, a disposable pouch on the outside of your stomach that takes in waste, instead of taking the normal route. Dalton wore it for six months.

"I was in a fight to save my life. Whatever they told me to do, I was going to do it," Dalton said.

Typically, doctors recommend screening for colorectal cancer once you turn 50, or 45 if you're among the black community. Dr. Mark says family history is important and the age of the youngest relative who had colon cancer is critical. However, sporadic cases in younger adults are rising significantly, well over the number of those with family histories, Dr. Mark says.

"When colon cancer's caught early, stage A, it's virtually a one hundred percent cure. When it's caught late and metastasized or spread to the liver and other organs, we're talking about a ten percent survival," Dr. Mark said.

So, what are the signs you should never ignore? Rectal bleeding, bloody stool, intestinal cramps, unexplained weight loss and changes in bowel habits that persist more than a few days.

Had Dalton waited, she says, "I wouldn't be here today."

Dalton considers herself one of the lucky ones.

"Eight years ago and I'm here today as a witness that you can make it."

She's cancer free, living her life to the fullest and making sure others learn from her experience. 

"This is your life. It can't be replaced."

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Colorectal Cancer Incidence Patterns in the United States, 1974–2013: https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/3053481/Colorectal

Related story on new study: https://nortonhealthcare.com/news/what-millennials-gen-xers-need-to-know-about-colon-cancer-report

American Cancer Society Recommendations for Colorectal Cancer Early Detection: https://www.cancer.org/content/cancer/en/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/acs-recommendations.html

Start my Colorectal Cancer Risk Assessment: https://nortonhealthcare.com/Pages/colon-cancer-risk-assessment.aspx

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