Georgia woman learns colon cancer can strike early

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A recent study reveals an alarming rise in the number of young and middle-aged Americans, from their 50's all the way down to their 20's, being diagnosed with colon and rectal cancers.

The study, funded by the American Cancer Society, found people under 55 are 58% more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer, perhaps because their providers are not expecting to find colorectal cancers in younger adults.

Kim Houston of Braselton, Georgia, says cancer was the last thing on her mind when she began having some odd symptoms four years ago.

Back in May of 2013, Houston was a 45-year-old event planner, with two very sports-focused kids.

"A lot of my life in being busy was running to this tournament and that tournament," Houston remembers.

Always active, she began feeling weak and sick to her stomach.

"I was having some stomach issues, and some elimination issues, where I felt like it was stomach virus," Houston says.

She didn't go to a doctor for months, and when she finally did, she says, she was misdiagnosed.

First, she says, her internist diagnosed her with intestinal parasites, then with E.coli.

But medication didn't help, and the abdominal pain wouldn't go away.

"I was getting concerned. I was very concerned," Houston says.

Finally, after 5 months, Houston went to see a gastroenterologist, who listened to her symptoms and recommended a colonoscopy.

"And I'm thinking, 'Wait I'm 45, I'm not old enough for a colonoscopy!'" she says.  "Because, when you think of colon cancer and colonoscopies, you think of an older person."

That gets to the core of the problem, says Dr. Perry Ballard, a medical oncologist at the Piedmont Cancer Institute in Atlanta and Houston's oncologist.

Dr. Ballard worries doctors and younger patients may not be aware of an alarming spike in the number of younger people being diagnosed with colon and rectal cancers.

"We're seeing people like Kim in their 40's, people in their 30's," Ballard says. "I even have one patient who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in his 20's."

When  Kim Houston's doctor told her she had stage 3 or later-stage colon cancer, she immediately thought of her two young children, one in middle school, the other a freshman in high school.

"And when we told them, you could see the sheer terror on their faces and in their eyes and their heart," she remembers.  "So, I had to keep it together for them and my husband."

Houston underwent a hysterectomy, then colorectal surgery, then 6 grueling months of intense chemotherapy.  

Finally, Dr. Ballard broke the news the her cancer was gone.

"And that's when I allowed myself to have my good cry," Ballard remembers. "That's the first time I cried, from being diagnosed, through all the surgeries, through my chemo."

But Dr. Ballard worries for every Kim Houston, there is another younger person whose cancer is being missed, because doctors aren't looking for it.

"You do see patients you, it's like, 'Gosh, he's 35, he couldn't have colon cancer.'" Dr. Ballard says.  "And 6 months, a year goes by before a diagnosis is made."

That delay could be the difference between a cure and a killer. 

So, Dr. Ballard says, if you're having a change in bowel habits like diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal pressure that lasts for more than a few days, see your doctor.

"Even if you're young, if you've got blood in your stool, or if you're having abdominal cramping or pain or unexplained weight loss, or unexplained anemia, don't fight the doctor if he wants to do a colonoscopy," Dr. Ballard says.

Four years after Kim Houston's scare, she's doing well.

 "I'm great," she says.  "I feel extremely grateful that I'm hear to talk about it."

Houston says she's learned a powerful lesson:  if something doesn't feel right, get it checked out.

 "If your body is telling you, giving you some sort of symptoms, don't wait 5 months because you're busy," she says. 

It's not clear why colon and rectal cancers are increasing in younger Americans, but the American Cancer Society says you can lower your risk by eating plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and cutting back on red meats, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, avoiding tobacco and limiting your alcohol intake to no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 for women.

According to the American Cancer Society, the most common signs and symptoms include:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Dark stools, or blood in the stool
  • Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

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