SPRINGDALE, Ark. — Colorectal cancer is rising in young adults. That’s why the recommended guidelines on when you should get screened have changed from 50 to 45 years of age.
“We need to talk about colorectal cancer because there's too many people that are dying of this disease,” patient Melissa Jones said. “It is a treatable curable disease.”
Jones got her first colonoscopy back in October.
“The guy said, ‘You have a two-inch tumor in the center of your rectum,” she said. He told her, “‘They’ll have to do the test and the diagnosis, but it's cancer.’”
Blake Lockwood, MD at Highlands Oncology confirmed the devastating news.
“Screening is so important because by the time people develop symptoms, oftentimes it’s later at the disease course,” Dr. Lockwood said.
Jones added, “I found out that it was stage four because it had moved into my lungs.”
Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in both men and women, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Oncologists say 45 is the new 50 when it comes to regular screenings, and that's if you have an average risk.
“I thought I was being proactive, getting it a year early because previously it had been age 50,” Jones said.
Melissa found out about her diagnosis less than a month after her 49th birthday. Her doctor says he is seeing younger people walk into his office with colon cancer.
The latest research from the ACG shows people born around 1990 have twice the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer than those born around 1950.
Arielle Perry is only 37 and has no family history.
“I had some weird GI bleed going on,” Perry said.
One night it got serious, so she went to the emergency room.
“They ended up keeping me there for a few days,” she said, “And that's when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. They haven't ever given it a definite stage. They've just said probably stage 3ish, 4ish.”
Medical experts can’t pinpoint why colon cancer rates are going up, but Dr. Lockwood says there are factors we can control to help reduce our risk:
- Avoid a diet high in saturated fat
- Eat red meat in moderation
- Limit processed foods
- Don’t smoke
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Test your Vitamin D level to make sure it’s not low
- Alcohol in moderation
Talk with your doctor if you are obese, if you have a family history or any inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis. You may need to get screened before the age of 45.
There are also symptoms you should monitor.
“Look for changes in their stool,” Dr. Lockwood said. “If you notice that you have blood in your stool, if you notice that you're becoming more constipated; if you notice that your stools are changing in consistency, becoming more thin; if you notice that you're feeling more tired, losing weight unintentionally… those are a lot of the common signs and symptoms for colon cancer.”
Melissa and Arielle each have unique treatment plans.
Melissa was diagnosed in October 2021. She finished eight rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation. She is expecting to undergo surgery in mid-July. Her last CT scan showed she has no active cancer, but doctors still need to confirm the cancer that spread to her lungs is gone too.
“I’ll have a scan next week to find out for sure,” Melissa said. “But if it’s gone from the lungs, according to Dr. Lockwood, my chances are excellent of remission.”
Meantime, Arielle’s radiation treatments are just getting started. It's being paired with chemo, but that's now on hold after some complications.
“I ended up with sepsis,” Perry said. “I was back in the hospital for nine days while they tried to get that under control.”
As a teacher and mother of four, she rarely took time to listen to her body until now. “No matter how embarrassing, or weird, or gross you feel like your symptoms might be, go to the doctor,” Arielle said.
For both women, having a support system is everything. A friend of Arielle’s told her to set up a Facebook page to give people updates on her cancer journey.
“There are people following the journey I've never met in my life,” Arielle said. “And they’re saying, ‘Hey, I'm praying for you,’ and it’s amazing.”
That same friend also set up a GoFundMe to help with Arielle’s medical expenses.
Melissa doesn’t have a lot of family, but she says her friends in Northwest Arkansas and on social media have helped give her the drive to stay optimistic and fight against her initial prognosis, which felt daunting and grim in the beginning.
“I’m really lucky that I've had an amazing support network behind me,” she said. “That really helps you build up what you need to fight this disease and just be positive about it because they’re gonna help you through it.”
According to Dr. Lockwood, there will be 16,000 new cases of colon cancer in Arkansas in 2022 alone, and about 6,000 of those people will not survive. Both women hope sharing their story will help change these statistics.
“It’s one of those things that you want to tuck away and not talk about,” Melissa explained. “Breast cancer was like that 20 years ago. Now we talk about it, and fewer women are dying from breast cancer. We need to talk about colorectal cancer because there's too many people that are dying of this disease, and it is a treatable curable disease.”
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