Bowel Cancer in Younger Adults
- Before Gary Welsh was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer at 34, he struggled with stomach issues over the years.
- Even when he complained of stomach pain and vomiting just a month before his diagnosis, doctors still thought he was only suffering from a stomach bug.
- Welsh wants people to hear his story because young people need to know they can get colorectal (bowel) cancer, too.
- Statistics suggest that “one in five new cases” are now occurring in people in their early 50s or younger.
- It’s important to talk to your doctor about a tailored approach to screening and address any concerning changes to your health.
Welsh always considered himself to be “super fit and healthy.” He regularly went to the gym, lifted weights and ran. Since 2015, he occasionally struggled with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – a common disorder affecting the stomach and intestines that can lead to symptoms like cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. Symptoms than can be confused with those of other condition, like bowel cancer. However, his doctors never said there was any cause for concern.Read More
“It’s your living nightmare,” Welsh said. “It’s the worst thing you can be told. But even then, the hospital said they were 99.9 per cent sure it was benign.”
Sadly, they were wrong, and colonoscopy results led to his bowel cancer diagnosis in 2021 at age 34. Welsh was dealing with stage 4 cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes and omentum – the layer of fat and blood vessels that projects off the colon and stomach.
“I was healthy, never smoked, never overweight. I had no genetic links to cancer,” he said. “I got cancer through living my life normally, which is so worrying.
“We need to spread awareness. People who have always had IBS should push their GP to look into it more.”
His treatments began with chemotherapy in December 2021, but a six-month scan revealed the effort was unsuccessful. Welsh also discovered his cancer was being fueled by a BRAF mutation – a completely random genetic mutation that can be used as a biomarker for certain cancers – including bowel cancer. People with a BRAF mutation indicated the need for aggressive treatment, according to our experts.
Biomarkers in Colon Cancer: Understanding KRAS, BRAF, and HER2
“People with a BRAF mutation have a higher risk of the cancer coming back,” Dr. Paul Oberstein, a medical oncologist at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet. “And it may inform how we watch that patient going forward and what we do if it does come back.
“So, it’s a piece of information to have that’s necessary if the patient has cancer that returns or if they need treatment for their cancer.”
Welsh knows the statistics for stage 4 bowel cancer, but that won’t stop him fighting. His family is currently raising money on GoFundMe so they have the financial freedom to pursue any and all treatment options.
“By hook or crook, we have to get to a curative position,” Welsh said. “You have to aim towards it otherwise you will feel totally helpless.”
More on Colorectal Cancer Symptoms
- 30-Year-Old Thought Bloody Stool Was From IBS – But It Was Rectal Cancer: How He Used His Diagnosis to Empower Others
- Confusing Cancer For Irritable Bowel, Doctor Misdiagnose 37-Year-Old, ‘You’re Never Too Young or Healthy’
- Young Mom, 27, Thought Bloating Was Just IBS But It Was Bowel Cancer: Knowing the Important Differences Between the Two
Bowel Cancer Is Affecting More Young People
Bowel cancers are generally referred to as colorectal cancers in the United States. The term colorectal cancer refers to a cancer that begins in the colon or rectum – that’s why some people say colon cancer or rectal cancer depending on where the disease began.
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Gary Welsh wanted to share his bowel cancer journey because he wants more people to know the disease is affecting young, seemingly healthy people. Looking back on his diagnosis journey, he thinks “maybe something could have been picked up earlier” during his doctor visits for stomach issues if everyone involved had been more aware of the possibility of bowel cancer.
With April being IBS Awareness Month, Welsh sure does have a good message. His story is a reminder to know the important differences between seemingly benign stomach issues and colorectal cancer. IBS symptoms can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Changes in the appearance of your stool
- Changes in how often your have a bowel movement
When there is constipation, the increased strain can lead to small tears in the rectum, resulting in some bleeding. However, persistent rectal bleeding is a serious symptom, and that can be an indication of colorectal cancer.
In comparison, colorectal cancer often presents with symptoms that include:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
- A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one
- Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
- Blood in the stool, which might make the stool look dark brown or black
- Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Unintended weight loss
As you can see, the symptoms are very similar. However, a key sign that may be indicative of cancer is the unexplained weight loss and significant bleeding, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center. If symptoms last more than two weeks, you should take your concerns to the doctor.
The Rate of Colon Cancer Is Increasing in People under 50
Welsh’s mission to educate is more than warranted. Recently published colorectal cancer statistics are even saying “one in five new cases” are now occurring in people in their early 50s or younger. That’s why the the United States Preventive Services Task Force updated its colorectal cancer screening recommendations to begin at age 45 instead of 50.
“Colon cancer in the United States, across all age groups, has been decreasing over the last 20 years,” colorectal surgeon Dr. Heather Yeo told SurvivorNet. “And that’s most likely due to screening of colonoscopy.
“However, the only age group it’s not been going down in is the age group under 50.”
Knowing that this shift in the population landscape is crucial, but understanding what makes early-onset bowel cancer different is important, too.
“Early-onset colorectal cancers seem to be more aggressive and found at later stages in younger adults, but they are not necessarily more fatal if they are caught early,” Dr. Yeo said.
In addition, these early-onset colorectal (bowel) cancers more often occur in women and are more likely to present with hematochezia (rectal bleeding) and abdominal pain at least in part because of the predominance of left-sided tumors.
Research suggests a tailored approach to screening, based on your lifestyle and family history, may be most beneficial. So, even if you’re not yet 45, it’s important to discuss your risk level and recommended screening protocols with your doctors.
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