Cornell University college president Elizabeth Garrett, the first female to ever hold that title, died of colon cancer this past March. She was just 52. “It is with utmost sadness that I write to inform you that our president, colleague, and friend, Elizabeth Garrett, passed away late last evening after a brave battle with colon cancer,” Robert Harrison, chair of Cornell’s board of trustees, wrote in an email to the Cornell community on Monday. “There are few words to express the enormity of this loss.”
Garrett served her role for less than a year due to her disease. She announced in February that she was undergoing an “aggressive treatment plan” for colon cancer and delegated some of her responsibilities to senior staff members. Garrett said at the time that she was “optimistic” that she would be able to “manage this illness.”
Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in women, behind breast cancer and lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colon cancer typically starts as a polyp, or growth, that forms in the inner lining of the colon and grows toward the center. Most polyps aren’t cancerous, but some may progress to that point.
“The sad part about colon cancer is that it can usually be prevented,” says Cathy Eng, a professor of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Colon cancer is typically detected during a colonoscopy, the preferred method of screening for the disease, she says. The American Cancer Society currently recommends that men and women get a colonoscopy at age 50 to screen for polyps and colon cancer, because the average age of colon cancer patients in the U.S. is 68.
If you have a first-degree family history (that is, parent, sibling or child) of colon cancer, it’s recommended that you get screened 10 years before your family member was diagnosed. So, for example, if your mother was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 40, you should get a colonoscopy at age 30.
However, Anton Bilchik, M.D., Ph.D., chief of medicine and chief of gastrointestinal research at California’s John Wayne Cancer Institute, notes that there has been an increase in colon cancer in younger people (i.e. those under the age of 50). “Less than 50 percent of people get screened under the age of 50,” he says. “That’s a concern.”
Bilchik says experts aren’t sure why there’s a rise in colon cancer among younger people, but says it could be due to increased obesity rates (obesity is a risk factor for the disease) or that more younger people are actually getting screened at an earlier age when they have symptoms.
But Julian Sanchez, M.D., a colorectal surgeon at the Moffitt Cancer Center, points out that colon cancer can be hard to detect given that its symptoms are vague and may not even surface at all. Among those symptoms that do present themselves are bleeding with bowel movements, stool that suddenly goes from normal to thin and watery, bloating, abdominal cramping, or feeling like you have to go all of the time.
Of course, it’s possible to have a change in stool or experience abdominal bloating due to a stomach bug or change in diet. But if it persists, you should call your doctor. “Any change that lasts greater than two weeks—and definitely over a month—you need to see your physician,” says Eng.
Once detected, colon cancer is usually treated with surgery to remove the cancerous portion of the colon, the tumor itself, and related lymph nodes. But if a patient is at a later stage, they may also require chemotherapy, says Sanchez. However, he says, “most patients won’t need chemotherapy after surgery.”
As with many cancers, early detection is key with colon cancer. “More than 90 percent of the time it’s curable if it’s detected early,” says Bilchik.
While women tend to focus more on breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer, Eng says it’s crucial for women to realize that a colonoscopy is just as important as a Pap smear or mammogram.
She also stresses that you shouldn’t brush off colon cancer symptoms because you’re young. “My youngest patient is 19,” she points out. “This is a real wakeup call for people to realize that colon cancer is not just a disease for the elderly.”
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