Colon Cancer Affecting Younger Adults
When acclaimed actor Chadwick Boseman died this past summer at age 43 from colon cancer, the tributes were swift, many tied to his performances as Black Panther in the Marvel Entertainment movies, or his breakthrough role as Jackie Robinson in “42.”
Many people didn’t know he had colon cancer, which progressed to Stage 4 earlier this year. Since his death, unfortunately, there has been little discussion of colon cancer, let alone how it struck someone so young.
“With the focus on COVID-19, I don’t know that his diagnosis and death hit home. But it should. We used to recommend people have a colonoscopy after they turn 50,” said Dr. Shishin Yamada, who specializes in general surgery at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. “Now we tell them 45.”
Patients Affected at Younger Age by Colon Cancer
Dr. Yamada said he has had several colon cancer patients who were much younger than Boseman when they were diagnosed. Among them was Layla, who was 20. There was no pre-existing condition, he said, and no family history. Just abdominal pain that had been misdiagnosed several times, including while she was pregnant.
Layla, who travels often, said she was living in Yemen at the time with her husband.
“I had extreme abdominal pain and abdominal contractions,” she said. “The pain was intermittent for several months. I finally saw a doctor, and I was told it was a urinary tract infection.”
“Relieved” by that diagnosis, Layla said she just learned to live with the severe, intermittent pain, including through her successful delivery in the United States. But she continued to have the abdominal pains, finally becoming unbearable, leading her to the Silver Cross Emergency Room.
“When Dr. Yamada told me I had colon cancer, I was stunned,” she said. “Colon cancer isn’t prevalent amongst young people, so it wasn’t even something that had ever crossed my mind.”
Minimally Invasive Procedure Removes Cancer
Layla underwent a minimally invasive right hemicolectomy on a Sunday night, and she was out of the hospital within a few days.
“She healed wonderfully; in fact, being young means she has barely visible surgical ‘keyhole’ incisions,” Yamada said.
Following the surgery, Yamada prescribed five years of close follow-up appointments every six months, including a CT scan and colonoscopies. While home stool tests can detect traces of blood, Dr. Yamada said colonoscopies are the “gold standard” when it comes to early detection of colon cancer. In that procedure, the patient is given a sedative, and the doctor uses a flexible, expandable scope about the size around of a finger to get a view of the inside of the colon.
The doctor can see any potential problem areas – including pockets called diverticula, where seeds and other small bits of food can become irritants, as well as polyps and hemorrhoids. The doctor can remove any of those objects, and biopsy them as well.
In some cases, the doctor may need to remove a portion of the colon that’s damaged too severely. If extreme, a bypass called a colostomy, may be necessary, at least for a while.
Dr. Yamada said people of any age can avoid all this if they pay attention to symptoms early on. Those include blood in the stool, severe abdominal pain, stools that are grayish and/or thin and string-like or flat.
Colonoscopy Preparation: Not as Bad as It Used To Be
Many might be put off by the thought of a colonoscopy, Dr. Yamada said. But in truth, he added, patients are out during the procedure. They do have to fast the day before and “prep,” but that’s not as bad as it used to be.
“They used to give you a gallon of stuff to drink to help clean out your colon,” Dr. Yamada said chuckling. “Now, it’s just a solution you take several times and can mix with a clear liquid, even soda. If you still don’t like the taste, I always suggest to people they chew something along with it, like gummies.”
Or some, like Robert Roderick of Manteno, thought at 48, he might be a bit young for colon cancer. He also had been in pretty good health.
So, when he noticed a change in bowel habits and a little blood in late fall 2016, his doctor said it could be diet-related and maybe hemorrhoids, and to keep an eye on it.
But after the symptoms worsened, a gastroenterologist tested and found a tumor on his colon. That was two weeks before Christmas.
He was referred to Dr. Yamada, a member of Silver Cross Hospital's Midwest Institute for Robotic Surgery, the largest in the Chicago area. On December 26, Dr. Yamada performed a left hemicolectomy to robotically remove the tumor and resect the colon. But a follow-up revealed the cancer had spread to Roderick’s liver.
While that usually means very tough odds, doctors were able to ablate the metastatic liver tumor. Roderick admitted the year of chemotherapy was pretty rough, but now, Dr. Yamada said he doing well, with no recurrence.
Roderick said he wishes there were some kind of test that could have picked up the tumors earlier. Doctors told him the tumor was growing for about two years, even before he had symptoms.
Grateful for Dr. Yamada and for Being Young
Roderick is thankful to have such a great doctor to help get him through such a tough time in his life. His wife Tricia and daughter Katelyn were and are great support. And he doesn’t take being relatively “young” for granted anymore.
Layla strongly agrees.
“Being young usually entails being healthy which can often lead to ignoring symptoms,” she said. “What I would recommend to young people is to seek medical help whenever needed and to not ignore concerning symptoms. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
“I am forever grateful for Dr. Yamada and his excellent team for taking great care of me during one of the scariest moments of my life.”