Colorectal cancer on the rise among adults in NJ under 50

Brick Township resident Taylor Velardi loves to kickbox, work out and play with her 2-year-old nephew. At a glance, it may be hard to imagine the 26-year-old has colorectal cancer.

“It just wasn’t ever on my radar because I didn’t know it was possible,” she said.

Velardi says initially her symptoms weren’t that alarming.

“I was having a lot of discomfort. I wasn’t having normal bowel movements. I was having a lot of gas and problems, but nothing life changing. It wasn’t impeding in my normal, daily functions,” she said.

Eventually though, she constantly saw blood in the toilet bowl. Doctors initially suspected Crohn’s disease or colitis, but the colonoscopy revealed something worse — the medical team found a mass.

“I didn’t even put a mass and cancer together because I was like, ‘I’m 26, that’s not cancer, it’s just a mass,'” Velardi said.

“Younger people can get colon cancer, and young, healthy people can get colon cancer,” said Dr. Penny Turtel, chief of gastroenterology at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “The difficult part of it is that most young people with colon cancer don’t have a family history and don’t have the known risk factors.”

Velardi says she worked out six times a week, never smoked, ate healthy foods and has no family history.

The State Department of Health’s New Jersey State Cancer Registry indicates that colorectal cancer is rising in adults younger than the recommended screening age of 50. Approximately 70 New Jersey residents under the age of 30 were diagnosed with the disease in 2015, which is three times the number of cases diagnosed a decade ago. But why are more young people getting diagnosed?

“Nobody really knows the answer. I’ll tell you what some of the discussion is about, some people are talking about the rise in the obesity epidemic, sedentary lifestyle, lack of good diet and exercise,” Turtel said. “It’s not just obesity. Some centers think that the increase is maybe a whole different entity, maybe this is a molecularly different disease.”

The State Department of Health says it is important to note that colorectal cancer is still rare in those under the age of 50. Still, Turtel says there are symptoms that people should look out for like bleeding, abdominal pain and change in bowel patterns.

“There are various ways to screen for colon cancer, but colonoscopy is the preferred method. The reason is that colonoscopy not only detects colon cancer and colon polyps, but also prevents colon cancer by removing precancerous polyps,” said Turtel.

Velardi is undergoing chemotherapy and then eventually radiation treatments before surgery. She recently got good news: the chemo shrunk her mass by 50 percent so far. She credits her family with giving her strength. Now, she’s going to support groups and blogging about her journey.

“If this had to happened to me, I want to make it as positive as possible,” said Velardi.

She says she wants to encourage other young people to talk about many of the uncomfortable symptoms more openly, and now she’s looking ahead.

“2019 is going to be my year. If I have to trade in a year of this for the rest of my life to be healthy and happy, then that’s fine,” she said.

This fighter is determined to keep on fighting until she wins.