The death of actor Chadwick Boseman at age 43 felt personal for Rufo Soto. Like Boseman, the transplant nurse at University Hospital was diagnosed with colon cancer before the age often recommended for a colonoscopy or screening.
Soto had occasionally seen blood in his stool for several years, but he never experienced any pain. He thought he just had hemorrhoids. Then Soto’s 76-year old father was diagnosed with rectal cancer, and Soto decided to get checked.
“It was a real surprise,” he said, remembering his shock at learning he had a malignant mass in his colon. “I was only 46. I couldn’t comprehend it.”
When to begin colon screenings
Many healthcare agencies, including the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, recommend adults have an initial colonoscopy at the age of 50, and follow-up colonoscopies every ten years after that.
There is growing concern, however, that colon cancer among younger patients like Soto is soaring, and 50 is too late for many.
The American Cancer Society has responded by recommending initial colon screenings at age 45. Earlier this year it released a report that showed an alarming increase of 2% annually in colon cancer for patients under 50. Meanwhile, seniors are scheduling screenings more often, which has coincided with a drop in tumors for those 65 and older.
Risks and symptoms for colon cancer
Dr. Randy Wright, a gastroenterologist with University Health, says there are risk factors that place some patients at higher risk.
Black adults like Chadwick Boseman, for example, are diagnosed more often and at a younger age.
“We don’t know why African Americans seem to be having a problem with colon cancer at an earlier age,” says Wright. Regardless of age or ethnicity he urges you to talk to a doctor and be screened if you have any of the following:
- A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
- A history of inflammatory bowel disease
- A history of radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer
You should also be aware of symptoms that may indicate polyps or colorectal cancer:
- Blood in your stool
- Stomach pain, aches or cramps that don’t go away
- Unexplained weight loss
Colon cancer can be prevented
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in U.S. men and women, but when the polyps are found early it can be prevented. Dr. Wright says that’s because the colon polyps that develop into cancer grow slowly.
“Those polyps can take 10 to 15 years to go from normal to dysplastic to colon cancer,” he explains. “The concern is if people avoid evaluating their symptoms they could be diagnosed with a cancer at a later, less treatable stage.”
Dr. Wright says colonoscopy is the “gold standard” for detecting polyps or tumors early. He knows, however, that some resist the outpatient procedure that uses a small camera and tube to look inside the colon and rectum.
Alternative colon screenings test for blood in the stool or use alternative visual methods to look inside the colon. Patients choosing the blood tests should have them annually. If growths are found during these procedures a colonoscopy will still be needed.
The reason doctors usually recommend colonoscopy is that polyps found during the procedure can immediately be removed to prevent them from growing.
So what’s the best screening procedure for you? Dr. Wright says it’s “the one that gets done.”
Rufo Soto’s message
Rufo Soto says his story should be a reminder to everyone that ignoring symptoms – no matter your age – is dangerous. Unfortunately, his colon cancer spread to his liver. He’s had three rounds of chemotherapy and two ablation procedures to destroy cancer cells.
He feels lucky that he’s still working at a job he loves and has this opportunity to educate others.
“The best thing is early awareness,” says Soto. “Listen to your body. Don’t ignore the symptoms. That would be a big mistake.”
Take this online risk assessment to see if you are at a heightened risk for colorectal cancer. University Health offers a full spectrum of gastroenterology services including testing and noninvasive, minimally invasive and interventional care.