Advocate Laura Wehrly on the Crisis of Early-Onset Colon Cancer

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We are excited to host Be Seen, Get Screened's first-ever guest guest author. Laura Wehrly has made it her mission to spread the word about early-onset colon cancer, and has contributed this post to engage Be Seen, Get Screened supporters in her fight to save thousands of lives.

I confess that colon cancer had made it onto my radar.  After all, I had reached THAT age.  The age when all the Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and doctors tell you it's time to get screened, that this cancer could now reasonably happen to me. 

When my 33 year old son called and told me he had a bad pain just below his ribs on the right, colon cancer did NOT make it onto my radar, nor had it when he had declined milk several months earlier because he thought he had become lactose intolerant.  But it was colon cancer. Stage IV, and we had to work hard to find any hopeful message at all. 

My brilliant, self-sufficient, adventurous, son - who just three weeks earlier had hosted a birthday party that was a tribute to youth and virility, an arm wrestling themed party, and he was strong and seemingly healthy enough to have been one of the top contenders. There were too many metastases for surgery or even radiation to be options, but he did all the right things, we all did.

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We rallied his support, worked to have hope and positive attitudes, made sure he got the best doctors and the best treatment nearly immediately, those who pray prayed hard. He was only well enough for one chemo treatment and only lived about seven weeks after his diagnosis.

I wanted more than anything to save him, after all that has always been my job to protect him.  But it simply wasn't possible. 

I decided the only way to make things close to right was to work to keep others from suffering the same outcome. Very early on, Jason said he'd be willing to be the face of colon cancer, he wouldn't be embarrassed.  My new mission fit that. 

In these three years since, I have sought information about young onset colon cancer and tried to advocate for a few goals that will help achieve the greater mission. Raising awareness in both the public and within the medical profession is one of my primary goals. 

I learned that, while PSAs only speak to those 50 and older, about 10% of colorectal cancer cases diagnosed in the U.S. are now in those under 50. This is the only age group for which colon cancer incidence and mortality rates are increasing (Colon Cancer Alliance).

Young onset colon cancer is most often found at an advanced stage. Please understand, that means fewer of these precious young people will get what they most deserve: to live their full lives, and for no reason other than lack of awareness and over-reliance on statistics.

I learned that, while we are told that we should go to the doctor if we have symptoms such as bowel changes, abdominal pain or blood or mucous in the stool, the majority of colon cancer cases present with no symptoms. The classic line is that the most common symptom of colon cancer is no symptom at all.

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After being active in a few Facebook groups, I've learned that even those young people "lucky" enough to have symptoms are most often misdiagnosed for months or even years, turned away from what would be a diagnostic colonoscopy. These people are most often diagnosed at advanced stages of the disease.

I learned that, while PSAs tell us that there are some risk factors we should be aware of, including family history of colorectal cancer, only a small percentage of those diagnosed with colon cancer have any family history of it (Colon Cancer Alliance).

That means most of those diagnosed do NOT have this prominently discussed cause for alert! That leaves the vast majority, including those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, without any reason to have awareness or advocate on their own behalf when they do experience symptoms that could indicate colon cancer.

I realize I am targeting PSAs here, but they are a primary method for our government, through the Centers for Disease Control, and cancer nonprofits, such as the American Cancer Society, to inform and educate us, the public for our protection. And I courageously state here today that they are doing an inadequate job of that when it comes to colorectal cancer.

Our doctors and other medical professionals also aren't adequately informed and educated about current realities of this disease, and we need them to see this possibility in their patients so that those patients are diagnosed in time. In time for good outcomes.

Considering the statistics for the causes of CRC and how to identify who's at risk so they can be warned, there's far more out there to be learned than the paltry 20% that is already known.

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Colorectal cancer is the third most common and second deadliest cancer in the U.S. in both women and men. In 2010, (the most recent available), 131,607 Americans were newly diagnosed with CRC. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Ten percent of those were under 50, so nearly 13,200.  And that number is rising.

Jason was diagnosed the very next year. I can't help thinking, what if I'd known about those 13,200 like him? What if I'd known in time? What I do know is that Jason's life was worth saving, and so are those 13,200+ who will be diagnosed next year.

Lack of public awareness, medical professionals' ignorance of current facts, and the statistics only addressing the majority must no longer be allowed to cause deaths among these young people. They are in their prime: working, creating and raising families, supporting their elders.

We can't afford to keep losing them.

For more information on and support for those facing early-onset colon cancer, check out the following resources:

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Topics: Colon Cancer Information