Colorectal diagnoses on the rise among younger people

Keith Lions had his first colonoscopy in his early teens because of stomach issues.

“I was like every year I’m going and they never find anything,” he said.

At age 33, the year he was going to skip his colonoscopy is the year doctors found colon cancer. Knowing how close he got to death at such a young age still brings tears to his eyes more than 15 years later.

“I had Stage 3 throughout my colon. They removed pretty much most of my colon,” Lions said.

In 2016, according to the New Jersey Department of Health, about 10 percent of those diagnosed with colorectal cancer were between 20 and 49 years old.

Health officials say that’s still considered rare in comparison to older adults. But Dr. Arkady Broder, a gastroenterologist at Saint Peter’s hospital, says diagnoses at younger ages are on the rise.

“Over the past five years or so there’s an alarming trend, certainly nationally,” Broder said.

Broder says nationally they’re seeing 1 in 7 patients diagnosed with colon cancer are under the age of 50. The American Cancer Society recently changed guidelines to require colonoscopies starting at age 45 instead of 50.

While colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, it’s also one of the few cancers that can be prevented with screening.

A colorectal cancer awareness event at Saint Peter’s Hospital featured an inflatable replica of a colon. Emily Carey PerezdeAlejo, program administrator for cancer health equity at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, used the model to explain the inner workings of the organ.

“These [polyps] would be removed during a colonoscopy and checked. Sometimes the polyps will be malignant, and they’ll have some cancer starting to form but they’ll still be contained and they’re regularly easy to remove and treat. And then if they aren’t taken care of they can develop into a localized cancer, which if still untreated can spread throughout the body.”

“If you develop symptoms of blood in the stool, or change in your bowel habits, difficulty going to the bathroom, or even excessively going to the bathroom, that should really alert you to be evaluated. And probably most importantly, if you have a family history of relatives who suffered from colon cancer or rectal cancer you need to be very vigilant about getting to a doctor and getting tested,” Broder said.

Lions has three sons in their 20s. He stresses to them the importance of getting screened because it was a screening that saved him.