Colon cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer death in the United States, yet it is one of the most preventable types of cancer. Pictured, Ramona Saldana and her family.
At 38 years old, Ramona Saldana seemed too young to have colon cancer.
But last April, the Kaiser Permanente member and mother of 2 boys knew something wasn’t right.
“My main symptom was that my stool was thinner than usual,” Saldana explained.
That spring, Saldana and her husband were busy helping to prepare for a family wedding, so she delayed seeing her doctor until August when she learned that a co-worker and friend had been battling colon cancer.
“We were very close, and later that month she passed away,” Saldana said. “I was very emotional, and then I thought, ‘I better look into my issue.’”
Increasing Cases in Young Adults
Saldana’s physician ordered a series of tests that turned up negative; a colonoscopy was the next step.
“Ramona is a young, healthy woman with no family history of colon cancer,” said Michelle Nazareth, MD, a gastroenterologist with The Permanente Medical Group in the Central Valley.
However, during the colonoscopy, Dr. Nazareth identified and removed a 1.5-centimeter growth, known as a polyp, from Saldana’s colon. Tests revealed it was early-stage colon cancer.
Saldana’s physicians recommended she have surgery to remove 4 to 5 inches of her colon in the area of the polyp. Two weeks later, she had the surgery at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center and is now recovering and “feeling great.”
“Colon cancer is very unusual at Ramona’s age,” Dr. Nazareth said. “However, several studies have shown an increased incidence of colon cancer in young adults. More research is being done to understand this.”
Why Screening Is Essential
About 1 in 20 people will develop colon cancer at some point in their life, usually over the age of 50. This is why routine screening for colon cancer is recommended starting at age 50 for people at normal risk.
People at higher risk, including those with a family history of colon cancer, should speak to their physician about when they need to start screening.
Colon cancer arises from pre-cancerous growths or polyps that grow in the colon. While most polyps are not cancer, certain types of polyps can turn into cancer. Screening allows polyps to be found and removed before cancer develops.
“The development of 75 to 90 percent of colon cancer can be avoided with early detection and removal of pre-cancerous polyps,” Dr. Nazareth said.
Most early stage colon cancers produce no symptoms. Colon cancer symptoms could include a change in stool shape such as pencil-thin stools, a change in typical bowel habits, rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, and cramping or abdominal pain.
Everyday Cancer Prevention
There are many everyday ways to help prevent colon cancer and, in the process, improve your overall health.
“We recommend a low fat, high fiber diet that includes whole grains and at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day,” Dr. Nazareth said. “We also recommend cutting down on fats such as red meat, dairy products, and processed foods.”
Dr. Nazareth added that studies have shown that regular exercise, avoidance of smoking, decreasing alcohol intake to no more than 1-2 drinks per day, and maintaining a healthy body weight lowers the risk of colon cancer.
Ramona Saldana has one more piece of advice for people who are experiencing symptoms.
“Don’t be afraid to make that doctor’s appointment,” she said. “When it comes to cancer, it’s better if it’s found early.”
Many Kaiser Permanente members use the at-home FIT test to screen for colon cancer. Learn more about the FIT test in this short video.