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1 in 5 patients with colon cancer now between 20 and 50 years old, doctors say

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WATCH ABOVE: March is colorectal cancer awareness month. As Katherine Ward reports, doctors are noticing more of their patients are younger than ever before, and addressing the disease head-on is the best defence – Mar 22, 2021

March is colorectal cancer awareness month. Doctors say people often don’t want to talk about this disease, because the symptoms can be embarrassing.

Melissa Eng was diagnosed last September. At the age of 38, the news hit hard.

“I was completely shocked, I don’t have any family history or any lifestyle risks or anything of the sort,” Eng said. “At first I was embarrassed; I always thought of it as an old person’s disease.”

Common symptoms for colon cancer include blood in the stool, thinner stools, sudden weight loss and having a difficult time going to the bathroom.

Read more: Rates of colon cancer have doubled among young people, and doctors still don’t know why

Dr. Sami Chadi, a colorectal surgeon with the University Health Network in Toronto, said the idea of colon cancer only affecting older people is not true.

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Chadi said he is diagnosing younger people with the disease every week.

“One in five colorectal cancer patients nowadays is under the age of 50 and above the age of 20,” Chadi said. “(That average) is much higher than it was before.”

Devin Olivieri started reporting symptoms when he was 19 but went undiagnosed for more than 10 years. Even though he spoke with his family doctor several times, colon cancer was never explored as a possibility.

“I think because I was young and healthy the doctor assumed the blood was haemorrhoids, the dehydration was that I am an athlete and I need to drink more,” Olivieri said.

Read more: Why are colon cancer rates in Gen Xers and millennials in Canada rising?

Olivieri works as a personal trainer. One day when he was with was a client, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital.

Further tests confirmed a colon cancer diagnosis and surgery was needed immediately.

“It was right on the line, my tumour, which was… under the rib cage in my spleen inside the large intestine, was (classified as) Stage 3.”

Timing was on Olivieri’s side. After two successful surgeries, he has been cancer-free for three years. But doctors say if you have symptoms it’s important to address them head-on and not wait.

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Chadi said that during the pandemic, health-care providers have noticed a drop in patient visits. Chadi said he suspects people are worried about catching COVID-19 if they have to go to a doctor’s office or hospital and are choosing to stay home.

Read more: B.C. actor developed colon cancer at 30, says doctors ignored her symptoms

However, Chadi said he is worried many people might be experiencing symptoms of colon cancer and going undiagnosed. Chadi said for this disease, catching the cancer early is critical.

“Ninety per cent of colorectal cancers that are diagnosed in their early stages will ultimately survive and be cured of the disease,” he said.

Eng said she will know in April if her treatments have been successful. She is hopeful she can start making big plans for the future soon. Her message to others is simple: “You can prevent a lot of pain if you get it checked out right away. I think that no matter how embarrassed you think you are it’s way worse when it gets to a point of concern.”

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