At the age of 36 I would’ve never thought I could be diagnosed with colorectal cancer. I thought that was a cancer for “older people”. But, guess what? After having some digestion issues and thinking I had an ulcer, I went to the doctor and was told I needed an emergency CT scan and a colonoscopy. What? I’m too young to have a colonoscopy, or so I thought. Turns out, the results came back and I most certainly had a tumor in my colon which was diagnosed as cancer. Not only was I shocked, but my doctors were as well. I was a pillar of good health and had no cancer running in my family. How did this happen?
Just as quickly as I was diagnosed, I was scheduled to have surgery to have a foot of my colon removed. After surgery I would be staged and would be advised on my treatment plan.
The surgery was successful. The tumor was removed along with several lymph nodes. The doctors were pretty confident that I was stage 2, which meant that I would not have to go through any chemotherapy or radiation. However, after the pathologist looked at my case and tested the lymph nodes that were removed, he made his evaluations and staged me at 3b. Disappointment struck. I was told that I would have to endure 12 rounds of chemo in a 6 month period.
I never realized how common colorectal cancer was until having to go through it myself. I’ve met several people that that have been in my situation. I learn a lot of tips and tricks from them and do my own research online. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. It’s estimated that in 2017 the number for colorectal cancer cases in the United States will be:
- 95,520 new cases of colon cancer
- 39,910 new cases of rectal cancer
The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 21 for men and 1 in 23 for women. There are a number of factors that can affect your risk for developing colorectal cancer.
Being overweight or obese
Carrying around extra weight is a risk factor for many diseases including colorectal cancer. This is something you can control. If you are overweight, try to lose those extra pounds so that your risk is lowered for many diseases including colorectal cancer.
Moving your body might help to lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer. And, as a bonus it can also help you shed those extra pounds if you are overweight.
Your risk of developing colorectal cancer increases when you eat a diet rich in red meats and processed meats. Try limiting your beef, pork, lamb, liver and hotdogs to lower your risk.
On the other side, diets that include lots of veggies, fruits and whole grains have been linked with lowering your risk of colorectal cancer. So, strive for a colorful, clean diet.
It’s no surprise that smoking can increase your risk for many diseases. We all know smoking can cause lung cancer, but it’s also linked to colorectal cancer. Smoking is just a bad idea altogether. It’s easier said than done, but quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Heavy alcohol consumption
A few drinks a week isn’t going to put you at risk for colorectal cancer, but heavy alcohol use has been linked to colorectal cancer.
All of the factors listed above can be controlled by you! You only get one body, take good care of it. There are risk factors that are beyond our control and cannot be changed.
Colonoscopy screenings are suggested when you turn 50, that’s because your chances for developing colorectal cancer increase after you turn 50. Don’t ignore getting screened. Colon cancer is a very slow growing cancer and you may never develop signs.
A history of inflammatory bowel disease (or IBD)
If you have IBD, your risk for colorectal cancer is increased. If you suffer from IBD, you may develop cells in the lining of your colon which can turn into cancer over time. Your doctor will probably suggest getting screened prior to the age of 50 if you have IBD.
A family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
I think it’s important to know that most people with colorectal cancer have no family history of it in their family. However, 1 in 5 people who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer have other family members that have been affected with the disease. If you do have a family member that has been affected, you are at a higher risk. Talk to your doctor because you will want to get screened early and possibly even more frequently. Colorectal cancer is a disease than can be caught early and removed without further treatment.
Having type 2 diabetes
Those that have type 2 diabetes are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for both type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer, but taking that into account people with type 2 diabetes still have an increased risk. If you lose that extra weight, your risk for colorectal cancer is lessened (along with your risk for type 2 diabetes).
Colorectal cancer my not cause symptoms right away, but here are some of the most common symptoms that may show up:
- Blood in the stool, which may look dark (but, not always)
- Cramping or abdominal pain
- A change in bowel habits, you may experience diarrhea, constipation or pencil thin stools. These symptoms will last more than a few days.
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss
- Fatigue and weakness
Many of these symptoms can be related to other conditions such as infections, hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. The important thing is that you see your doctor right away so your issue can be treated.
In my particular situation I didn’t fit the mold. I didn’t have any the risk factors which makes it even more frustrating. I worked out 6 days a week, ate clean, maintained a normal weight, rarely drank alcohol, didn’t smoke and have no family history. Cancer isn’t afraid of anyone or anything. However, I still maintain the best health that I can to avoid any controllable risk factors. Currently, I am getting my cancer treatment at the Mayo clinic and am involved in a research program to get the screening guidelines changed to a lower age to start detecting polyps, precancerous polyps and cancer in younger patients.
To learn more about colorectal cancer, how staging is determined, and to see case studies on life insurance underwriting, visit our Ask an Underwriter: Colorectal Cancer blog.