Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada - CCAC

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Colon cancer no longer just an older person’s disease


Andrew Hare is pictured with his wife, Jayna, and son, Asher. (HANDOUT, Toronto Sun)

Andrew Hare is battling what was once considered only an older person’s disease.

The 35-year-old is among the growing number of millennials who have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. People aren’t typically even tested for tumours in the colon or rectum until they’re in their 50s.

By the time Hare’s illness was diagnosed at age 29, his stage-four colon cancer had spread to his liver.

He’s angry his symptoms weren’t readily identified because the disease is highly curable if doctors catch it the early stages.

He has had four surgeries, the last being in 2015, and countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

“I was just married a year-and-a-half (when diagnosed) and, like everyone, had plans for kids and to progress at work, but I had to put everything on hold. If I was 65 and went in with my symptoms (of colon cancer), it would have been on the top of their mind,” Hare said from his Waterloo home.

“I think about it all the time. No one thought it could be cancer. The medical community needs to change. I’ve gone through the other side, but I still live scan-to-scan and in fear.”

While colon cancer rates have been dropping as expected in the 50-plus demographic, there has been a spike in younger people — 20s and 30s — which was virtually unheard of until recent years.

In Canada in 2016, 1,500 young people, including teens, were diagnosed with colon cancer.

Rates of colon cancer have been increasing by about 3% a year in younger people, which is “not insignificant,” according to the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada.

Research has shown that someone born in the 1990s appears to have double the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of developing rectal cancer compared to someone born in the 1950s.

Why the increased risk?

“Research is trying to address that. Older people are more sensitive to getting screened. Young people see this as an older person’s disease and we need more awareness,” said Barry Stein, president of the CCAC.

“Another reason could be lifestyle, but essentially we don’t know.”

Roll out the usual suspects: Obesity, inactivity, poor diet, smoking and drinking.

“Imagine being 20, thinking about dating and a mortgage and being diagnosed with colon cancer. The hardest with young people is it’s so scary. They can see it as the end of life, that they can’t have sex with people anymore and they have self-image changes. They don’t have a demographic to relate to,” Stein said.

The CCAC started a campaign last year targeting youth with the message that awareness and early diagnosis saves lives.

Typically, anyone under 50 isn’t screened for colon cancer, which can be 90% curable with an early diagnosis such as using a simple stool test as a first step.

The $20 test could indicate the need for a colonoscopy, a procedure examining the lining of the colon for tumours.

“It sounds like it could save lives and a lot of heartache. I wish I could of have had it done at 20. It would have saved all the costs I’ve been through if it was caught earlier,” Hare said.

“I had moments when I was sad, but was confident I could beat this. It’s nice to be able to do normal things with my wife and son, have a normal life and not always be in treatment.”

Early on-set symptoms of rectal tumours can include blood in stool, changes in bowel movements and abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss.

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