BALTIMORE — 50 years old has always been the age to get a colonoscopy, a preventative screening to check for colorectal cancer. Now, the American Cancer Society has lowered that age to 45 because more young people are being diagnosed with colon and rectal cancers.
Doctors say it's been far too common for people to be diagnosed with coloretal cancer at a younger age and, if they aren't diagnosed younger, the cancer is much farther along when it's time to get a colonoscopy.
Adam Young was just 32-years-old when he was diagnosed with stage three rectal cancer. He only had one symptom, blood in his stool.
"I didn't really pay attention to it at first. I just thought it would go away," said Young.
Months went by and when it didn't stop, he finally went to the doctor. He said they weren't too worried about it at the time, just thought it was something minor, but they decided to do a colonoscopy just to make sure. That's when they found the tumor.
"It was devastating. Just panic. I mean I have a family and two little kids. Probably the worst part about the whole experience is the first blow of the diagnosis, just because there's all these questions and there's no answers. They tell you you have cancer then there's nothing after that. We need more information. We need more tests so it's just a waiting game. That first month of just waiting for what type of cancer, what’s the treatment gonna be, that’s the worst part about the whole experience," said Young.
Dr. Pallavi Kumar, one of Young's oncologists, said they can't give a patient all the information until they know it. She said, "we really have to know the personal story of each and every patient. We have to know the size of the tumor. The stage. Those types of things will dictate their treatment."
Young wound up getting oral chemotherapy and radiation, at first, to shrink the tumor, surgery to remove it and, finally, months of IV chemo. All where successful, but not all of Young's questions were answered.
"Why me? The odds... It’s the opposite of winning the lottery. What are the odds of it happening to me? That’s why I think that ignoring the symptoms from the beginning because it can't be anything serous. It doesn’t happen. You don’t get rectal cancer at 32 years old, but somebody does," said Young.
With an increase in younger patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer, doctors are looking into why and how. "I think a couple of the things they’ve been exploring is better understanding tumors, looking at molecular features, mutations to better understand if there’s a difference between younger and older patients," said Dr. Kumar. She added, "I think they’re also looking at the environment of our gut, looking at microorganisms, looking at genetic factors that might increase the risk of rectal cancers in patients. We don’t know at this point but we're exploring all of these reasons."
A colonoscopy is considered a screening, a preventative procedure, so insurance companies will cover it, but only if you are over 50 years old or have risk factors like family history or are showing symptoms. Symptoms for colorectal cancer are weight loss, blood in stool, dark stool, or change in bowel habits like cramps or having trouble going to the bathroom. Sometimes there are no symptoms and the cancer isn't found until a colonoscopy is done.
Dr. Kumar said, "when we see these patients often they have a more advanced stage, so if we can bring down the age and capture more of them at early stages we’ll probably save a lot of lives."