‘Trust your gut’: Survivor shares story as colon cancer rates rise in young

Though colon cancer rates have decreased among older populations, there’s been a rapid shift in who’s getting diagnosed.
Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 3:53 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 22, 2023 at 9:56 PM EDT

GOOSE CREEK, S.C. (WCSC) - Though colon cancer rates have decreased among older populations, there’s been a rapid shift in who’s getting diagnosed.

The patients are getting younger, and it’s happening more frequently.

Dr. Raymond Dubois, the director of the Hollings Cancer Center at MUSC, says this is a trend that he’s seen for almost a decade now. But the numbers published in the last five years prove it’s more than just anecdotal.

“Forty-five is the new 50,” he said. “There are more people getting diagnosed in the 40 to 50 range. People who have a family history of colon cancers, their aunt, their uncle, their grandparents, or their immediate mother or father had it, then they have a higher risk for, and that could even happen in the 30s.”

The American Cancer Society says 20% of all cases in 2019 were in patients under the age of 54, an 11% increase since 1995. The current U.S. preventative services task force updated its guidelines in 2021 to recommend colonoscopies starting at 45 instead of 50.

“We’re screening earlier, we may even need to screen earlier than 45 but I think it’s remarkable that we got the regulatory agencies to agree to that,” DuBois said.

Ebony Holmes was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in February 2022.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Holmes said. “I was just completely [in] shock.”

She is 38 years old and has two young children. Holmes says she was experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, like stomach pain and bloody stool in late 2022. When she reached out to her doctor, cancer was the last thing on everyone’s minds.

“I definitely didn’t think it was cancer,” she said. “My primary care doctor said, ‘You’re young. We don’t think it’s cancer.’ The other doctor he sent me to said, ‘You’re young. We don’t think it’s cancer. It’s probably Crohn’s or [Irritable Bowel Syndrome] or something.’”

But a “just-in-case” coloscopy confirmed that it was cancer and that it had spread to her liver.

Dubois says it’s a combination of lifestyle factors, including weight and processed food diets that can increase patients’ risks.

Holmes’ message to others is to always advocate for yourself if you feel like something is wrong.

“I would say if you’re feeling any type of symptoms, call your doctor and then, of course, trust your gut,” she said. “Sometimes the doctor may say you don’t need that and if you feel like you absolutely need it, go ahead and have them schedule it.”

Dubois says that the outlook for cancer diagnoses isn’t all grim. He’s hopeful in the near future, cancers will be more treatable than ever before.

“Just like when somebody has a heart problem or cholesterol problem, we’ll be able to detect it early enough where we can stave off any super serious side effects,” he said.

Holmes recently completed her treatment at MUSC, which took a little under a year. She’s grateful to be cancer-free and is learning to not take any moment for granted.