It’s never too early: How a colon cancer screening could save your life

Brian Page was sitting nervously in the radiology room, waiting for his treatment to end. It seemed as if the clock was ticking slower. He had received news that his wife, Shanna, had finally gone into labor and was having a cesarean section just yards away from him.

At last, his treatment was done. He quickly rushed out, searching for the room where he would sit by his wife’s bed and meet their newborn child for the first time.

Brian, now 41, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer when he was just 39. His wife Shanna, 34, was eight months pregnant with their second child when he got the results of his colonoscopy.

“I was a young man and like anyone else, I thought I couldn’t be hurt,” Brian says. “Colon cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.”

READ MORE: Colon cancer screening: You have options

The beginning

Brian first detected something wrong he noticed blood in his stool. He was going in for a consultation for an abdominal hernia, and Shanna encouraged him to mention this symptom to his surgeon.

“As a family member, you really have to listen for those signs because you’re really their advocate too when it comes to care,” Shanna says.

Brian followed his wife’s advice and his doctor recommended he get a colonoscopy screening. Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, the screening results confirmed their suspicions — it was cancer. “It was a scary time,” Brian says. “We had a one-year-old at home, my wife was pregnant with our second child and a lot was happening in our lives at that moment.”

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), women and men are encouraged to start regular colon cancer screenings at age 45. Brian’s case was an exception. But new data shows an increased rate of colorectal cancer in younger populations.

“You never really think you’re going to get cancer, unless you have a family history of it,” Brian says. “It’s never too early to get screened. Colon cancer is one of the cancers you can beat if it’s detected early. There is no reason to not get screened earlier.”

Brian’s treatment took a year and was successful in beating his cancer. “It’s important for people to be honest with themselves and not be embarrassed by symptoms they may have. The more honest you are with your doctors, the more honest you are being with yourself and your body.”

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer starts in the colon or the rectum. Most colorectal cancer cases start as a growth, or polyp, on the inner lining of the colon or rectum and can turn into cancer over an extended period. However, not all growths become cancers. If cancer forms in a polyp, it can develop into the wall of the colon or rectum over time.

Except for skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, according to the ACS. About one in 22 men and one in 24 women in the United States will develop colorectal cancer during their lifetime. However, due to advances in screening techniques and improvements in treatments, the death rate from colorectal cancer has been falling in both men and women for several decades. As a result, there are now over one million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.

What are the screening guidelines?

“Colon cancer is one of the most important, preventable cancers that people are at risk for,” says David Weng, MD, oncologist for AAMC’s Oncology Center. Dr. Weng treated Brian during his journey with colorectal cancer, and his number one advice is to always consider an evaluation when you notice an abnormality.

“If you have bleeding or pain, you should be evaluated because, although rare, colon cancer can happen in individuals younger than 50. A thorough evaluation could lead to early diagnosis and successful treatment.”

Colorectal cancer is a preventable disease. Screening involves detecting abnormalities in the colon before they become cancer. The most reliable and effective screening test is a colonoscopy, says Dr. Weng.
“That’s a procedure where a gastroenterologist uses special equipment to look inside of the colon for abnormalities and in many cases, remove those abnormalities before they grow into something more serious.”

There are others tests you can take, such as a stool test that your health care provider prescribes to you. This is not the only test that should be done, warns Dr. Weng.

“If you do have a test for colon cancer using one of the commercially available tests, you should also have a screening test that looks inside the colon to ensure there’s nothing abnormal there,” he says.

Lessons learned

“Life hasn’t been the same since,” Brian says. “You go from being scared and shocked, to finding strength within yourself you didn’t know you had. And your relationships grow and you’re really never the same after going through this process.”

Shanna says family members should also pay close attention to signs and symptoms that can lead to early detection.

“As the family member, look for those signs and listen to your significant other or children or whoever is explaining things that just aren’t right,” she says. “Especially as a young person, it’s easy to brush it off and think you’ll feel better tomorrow. I’m glad we didn’t. For me, it would be very difficult to do this life without Brian.”

If you’re 50+ this year, pledge to have your colonoscopy. Learn more at askAAMC.org/Milestone50.