Not Too Young for Colon Cancer: Michelle's Story
Michelle Meck knew something wasn’t right. At the time, she was teaching school and figured being tired and rundown was the result of stress. She had recently given birth to her second child and her doctor told her blood in the stool was likely caused by hemorrhoids. But when the symptoms didn’t go away, Meck was finally diagnosed with colon cancer.
“I had some symptoms. But because I was so young and because I don’t have a family history of colorectal cancer, I was told it was something else,” said Meck. Meck, now 38, is one of a growing number of young people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finds that overall colorectal cancer rates are going down but increasing among young adults. In fact, someone born in 1990 is twice as likely to get colon cancer as someone born in 1950.
“That is really surprising and we don’t exactly know what is the cause of it,” says Rohini Vanga, MD, a gastroenterologist with Alamance Gastroenterology. Historically colorectal cancer has been thought of as a disease of middle and old age. Screenings aren’t even generally recommended until age 45 or 50. “It was absolutely shocking,” says Meck. “One of the problems of being diagnosed at a younger age is that colon cancer is usually diagnosed at a later stage because all of the signs are overlooked.”
While the risk factors of colon cancer in young people isn’t certain, there are theories. “The suspicions are a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, our changing dietary habits, moving to high-carb, low-fiber diets,” says Dr Vanga. But doctors are seeing young people of normal weight who apparently lead a healthy lifestyle. Dr Vanga says it is important to know your family history and the signs and symptoms. “Rectal bleeding, rectal pain or discomfort. They may also have changes in their bowel habits, changes in the caliber or consistency of the stool.”
“You have got to be an advocate for your health,” adds Meck. “This cancer is often very embarrassing for people. The stigma prevents people from talking with their doctor. People think, ‘There is no way I could have cancer.’ You need to be an advocate.”
While the past several years have brought increasing numbers of young people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, they have also brought new treatments. “Today, there is hope, even for stage III and stage IV patients,” says Dr Vanga. Dr Vanga points out that doctors can now treat many types of colorectal cancer based on their genetic makeup. Many patients can also use immunotherapies that use the body’s own immune system to target cancer.
Meck says she has seen great success in her treatment. She hopes a coming scan will confirm that. “I hope it is remission and I can cruise for a little while,” she says.