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Colon cancer rates for younger adults rising

A survivor of colon cancer encourages others to overcome their shyness about discussing symptoms of the disease

By Lisa Gutierrez

Kansas City Star


KANSAS CITY, Mo. » She couldn't tell her mom that something was wrong because it was way too embarrassing.

She didn't even like to walk down the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store.

So when Danielle Ripley-Burgess, 30, of Lee's Summit, Mo., was in junior high school and began finding blood in the toilet after going to the bathroom, "I didn't say anything about it for a long, long time. I was mortified."

When she finally did, she and her mom, at first, did their own research on the Internet and figured that because Danielle was so young, the problem had to be something benign, like hemorrhoids.


Just a few weeks after her 17th birthday in 2001 she was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer, going from prom plans to hospital stays in the blink of an eye.

Today, at 30, she's a wife and mother running a marketing firm — Semicolon Communications, wink, wink — and doing what she can to get people talking about what she once feared.

She's not above using props, either. Big ones. In early December she arranged to have a 40-foot crawl-through model of a colon trucked into town.


>> Blood in the stool (frequently not visible to the naked eye), a change in stool habits, a gradual decrease in the size of the stool, increasing abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss.

>> Those symptoms are much more likely to occur when the tumor is in the rectum or the very last part of the colon. Cancers that are higher up in the colon frequently don’t signal their presence with these symptoms until the tumor is quite large. That’s why screening for the cancer when there are no symptoms is critical.

Source: Larry Geier, genetics oncologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center

The message? Being afraid to talk about what happens in the bathroom could kill you.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Colorectal cancer is the second-most deadly cancer, but the majority of cases are preventable with the use of a common screening procedure called a colonoscopy.

Precancerous growths found during a colonoscopy — recommended every 10 years beginning at 50 — can be removed on the spot. That's important because those growths, or polyps, can stick around in your colon for years and become full-blown cancer.

"This is the only situation in all of medicine where the test used to screen for a cancer is also the method for preventing that same cancer," said Larry Geier, a genetics oncologist at the University of Kansas Cancer Center and one of Ripley-Burgess' doctors.

"In all other situations — mammogram, Pap smear — the screening test may be effective for early detection but provides no ability to prevent the cancer itself."

And yet, people fear the colonoscopy. Statistics show that less than two-thirds of Americans older than 50 have ever had one, or any other type of colorectal cancer screening process.

The ick factor is high. Here are the excuses patients give Geier.

» "I don't like the idea of a doctor sticking a scope up my rectum. I am too modest for that."

» "I hear the preparation for the test is very difficult, and I don't want to do that."

» "I am not having any symptoms, therefore I don't have cancer."

» "I just don't have time for that."

"I have heard each of these reasons too many times over the years, and none of them are worth taking the chance, or what I consider to be playing ‘Russian roulette' with your colon," Geier said.

Only 10 percent of all people diagnosed with the disease are younger than 50.

But while cases of colon cancer among adults 50 and older are falling, rates among younger adults like Ripley-Burgess are rising, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance.

"There is definitely a trend toward younger age at the time of diagnosis of colon cancer over the last two decades," Geier said. "Changes in diet, better screening and more awareness of early symptoms may each have a role but still don't provide adequate explanation."

What happened to Ripley-Burgess was rare. She was diagnosed with colon cancer at 17 and again at 25, when all but a foot of her large intestine had to be removed.

"I have to be kind of careful with what I eat, when I eat." No big chili dogs for lunch, for example. "It's normal for me now."

It was her bad luck to be, Geier put it, "genetically programmed" to develop colon cancer at such a young age. She has a genetic trait known as Lynch syndrome, which affects about 1 in every 4 to 5 Americans and is largely underdiagnosed.

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HanabataDays wrote:
That's quite an exhibit. I'm thinking if they have a snack shop, probably it doesn't sell hot dogs.
on March 4,2014 | 03:39AM
Ipo_Mom wrote:
This is no joking matter. I rebelled against my doctor's advice and in spite of his repeated pleas to have a colonoscopy once I hit 50, I held him at bay for two years until I gave in. Turns out I had a genetic condition myself and a very serious precancerous polyp which resulted in three more colonoscopies and biopsies over the next year. That was nearly 15 years ago. Ever since that experience, I have religiously gone for a colonoscopy when scheduled and am happy to report that I have remained cancer free. Because families didn't talk about these things years ago, I didn't know until after this experience when I started asking questions that my maternal grandfather had died of rectal cancer in his 50s... Chicken skin!
on March 4,2014 | 06:35AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Fudge sales are a bit slow at the concession.
on March 4,2014 | 07:52AM
Grimbold wrote:
Our diets are very wrong and that is why people keep the rotting putrid waste in their guts for days, causing poisons to accumulate. The food one eats should come out the other end within 24 hours. Research showed that Africans in Africa ( not Af- Am's ) who still eat their traditional food have almost no gut cancer, because their waste gets expelled within 24 hours.
on March 4,2014 | 04:03AM
awahana wrote:
This is no surprise.

Yes, American kids, and adults are eating too much packaged processed foods (pizza, bread, subway, plate lunch, white rice, mac, cheese, milk, poke, spam, meat, etc.). All with practically NO fiber.

A transit time of 24 hours, is still high risk for colon, breast and other cancers, as your colon absorbs all the toxins in modern, industrialized, processed food.

At 24 hours, you're probably not drinking enough water. A super healthy diet, mainly of fresh fruits and veggies, will give you a transit time of about 8-12 hours. That should be the goal to attain. You will sit on the toilet for less than 120 seconds everytime. You will go 2x/day. Hassle free. No more visiting public restrooms when you are out and about. Works for me.
on March 4,2014 | 06:08AM
lokela wrote:
Yes I also agree on diet. Fast foods, no veggies, no fruits and hereditary links can escalate your chances of getting colon cancer. If someone in your family had or has it you should get screened. It's not that bad. I been through the screening processes and it's way better then before.
on March 4,2014 | 05:19AM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
Well, I had the dreaded colonoscopy about a year ago and found to my surprise, it wasn't that bad. Yea you have to drink this salty liquid that "cleans you out", but the procedure itself is not bad, they put you out, you wake up and go home. After I got the news that everything was normal I had this great sense of relief. I've had friends who I think were saved by a colonoscopy. One had early stage cancer, other have had pre-cancerous polyps removed. Nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of, the screening saves lives and I would encourage anyone who can get screening to go for it.
on March 4,2014 | 05:29AM
leino wrote:
They do not necessarily "put you out" for the procedure. I requested no anesthetic and it was no problem. I got to watch the show on a TV monitor. No Oscar there folks!
on March 4,2014 | 06:09AM
all_fed_up wrote:
Stayed awake to watch mine too. Very interesting to see your insides like that. Glad the camera was turned on "post submersion".
on March 4,2014 | 06:41AM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
They gave me the stay awake option too by I opted to go out. Maybe next time I will accept the stay awake option as well!
on March 4,2014 | 08:20AM
Kalaheo1 wrote:
Triple "like"
on March 4,2014 | 06:25AM
manakuke wrote:
A frightful cancer stopped if caught early
on March 4,2014 | 05:33AM
Publicbraddah wrote:
This is a pain in the ...ss. Actually, it wasn't that bad. The night prior to the procedure is when you'll discover your new best friend........the toilet.
on March 4,2014 | 05:40AM
Kate53 wrote:
I inherited my father's colon with lots of polyps. I've had 4 colonoscopies (every 3 years) since I was 45. Every time they find polyps, nip them off and send them to the lab. So far no cancer. The last time I told my doctor I preferred the most recent method of cleanse as it was the easiest -- less than half a day from start to finish. She said it will probably be different, hopefully easier again, for the next exam. I eat a lot more fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, lean meat and fish. I stay away as much as possible from processed and pre-made food (no cans, jars, boxes, etc.) and sweets. It's not much of a sacrifice to have a healthier life and avoid cancer.
on March 4,2014 | 06:11AM
Kalaheo1 wrote:
I've had a colonoscopy too, after losing a young friend to it. It is easy!

You basically drink a bunch of Gatorade mixed with a laxative. When the time comes, you have some painless, watery diarrhea a few times. You go to say surgery, they start an IV, give you some medicine and it's completely painless. And the people are very nice.

It such a very important test. Get it if you're 50 or over or earlier if you have any symptoms like blood in your stool.

It's safe and easy and can catch a horrible disease early and cure you! Please get your colonoscopy!!

on March 4,2014 | 06:24AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Or you can go to the legislature and they will dry ream you clean as a whistle. Bring a pillow to bite.
on March 4,2014 | 07:53AM
cojef wrote:
After age 50, was required to take rectal examination every 2 years at a public health clinic as an executive employee in the civil service system. This practice ceased about 10 years later due to budget constraints. The rectoral procedure was not as elaborate as a colonoscopy and only examined about the first 5 inches of your lower bowels. Am 88 years old and have never had a colonoscopy yet. Move my bowels regularly like clockwork every 24 hours and very seldom is constipated. Attribute my fortunate circumstances to good eating habits. That's not say that I do not eat junk food, it means, I try to keep it at a minimum and after hitting my 80th years never overeat. Used to get drunk almost every Saturday night while in the Military and had the heaves about just as often. After 2 hitches in the Army, realized it was time to leave and settle down.
on March 4,2014 | 07:59AM
TrueCloud wrote:
Colorectal cancer can be so deadly yet so very preventable when detected early. Say yes to fruits and vegetables. And eat brown rice instead of white. Live long and healthy!
on March 4,2014 | 09:50AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Spam is an excellent product to maintain colon health. When taken in large doses with beer the incidence of colon problems diminishes rapidly.
on March 4,2014 | 10:48AM
HanabataDays wrote:
... except maybe prolapse.
on March 4,2014 | 10:58AM
tutulois wrote:
The test is no big deal -- preparation required but much easier on you than cancer! If your first test is OK, then it's a full 10 years before the second, unless problematic symptoms show up beforehand. Preventive medicine is the best kind!
on March 4,2014 | 10:53AM
ryan02 wrote:
I knew two people who died from this type of cancer when they were only in their 40s. One of them was a real health nut, eating only raw healthy foods. Part of it is lifestyle, but if you can't change your genes. I totally support screening, but would like to see the eligibility age lowered to 40. But I know that's too expensive and it's cheaper to let people die.
on March 4,2014 | 12:00PM
Pikachu wrote:
I agree with Ryan 02. Age for colorectal screening should be lowered to 40. Am at high risk for colon cancer (my Dad and his sister both died from colon cancer) but because I don't meet insurance criteria and am under 40, specialist is unable to order screening because insurance won't approve. Insurance companies are really for prevention.
on March 4,2014 | 03:14PM
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