Tucsonans raising awareness: Early onset colorectal cancer - Tucson News Now

Tucsonans raising awareness: Early onset colorectal cancer

(Source: Tucson News Now) (Source: Tucson News Now)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

More and more younger American adults are being diagnosed with a type of cancer usually found in older people.

It's colorectal cancer.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and a Tucson doctor wants us to be aware of the threat.

"Over the last three decades or so the overall incidence of colorectal cancer in the United States has gone down significantly, about 17%, but then we see a significant increase in patients under 50," said University of Arizona surgical oncologist, Dr. Valentine Nfonsam.

Tucsonan Alexandra Hernandez is 39 and the mother of three children. She's also a colorectal cancer patient, diagnosed when she was 31.

"It was a very hard blow. It was a very hard thing to--stage 4--to grasp," Hernandez said.

Dr. Nfonsam is Hernandez' surgeon. The colorectal surgeon said, among his younger patients, it's the same story.

"They have been seen by multiple physicians. They've all been assumed to have hemorrhoids or something else and by the time they show up, they have more advanced disease," Dr. Nfonsam said.

"They never once considered that it could actually be cancer because of my age," Hernandez said.

Dr. Nfonsam said doctors don't know why the number of cases is increasing among younger Americans.

He said it could be environmental, changes in the disease itself or changes in our bodies, such as genetic changes.

To try to prevent illness, Dr. Nfonsam recommends exercise, reducing obesity and eating a diet high in fiber and low in red meat.

Colorectal cancer is curable if detected early.

Colonoscopies to detect pre-cancer and cancer are recommended for people who are 50 and older and for those who have risk factors such as a family history.    

Dr. Nfonsam said it's important to raise awareness among young adults and among their primary care doctors.

"If you have a patient that has persistent blood in their stool and change in their stool caliber, change in their stool consistency, having some vague abdominal pain, weight loss, they should act, no matter how young they are," Nfonsam said.

He added that patients have to be custodians of their own health.

If you have symptoms and you don't feel your doctor is concerned enough, Dr. Nfonsam recommended getting another opinion.   

He said he's not trying to be an alarmist, that "95 percent or more of patients with blood in their stool don't have colon cancer, but we don't want to be that five percent."

"Do not ignore symptoms. Anything minor could be a lot more than what you think it is," Hernandez said.
 
She says she feels more fortunate, in a way, than some other people and that her illness has helped her realize what really matters in life.
   
She has one hope.  "Just to be around long enough to raise my children. That's all I can kind of hope for."

Dr. Nfonsam says it's highly likely that screenings have been the reason for the overall decline in colorectal cancer cases in the United States.

He advocates lowering the screening age for colorectal cancer.

Some of the latest research on the issue of colorectal cancer in younger Americans is in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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