Cancer Kills, Even at Age 20

Many wait too long to lose the weight — and it's literally killing them

Listen. Do you hear it? It’s the cry for a new attitude about overweight teens, and it’s growing louder. The serious implications of obesity are showing up earlier in life.

“One of my most vivid memories is being prepped for surgery, throwing up green bile, praying to die,” recalled Matt Erly of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was describing his emergency hospitalization at age 28. Five days later, he learned a malignant tumor had grown to the point of bursting the wall of his colon.

Erly, like many people in their 20s, considered himself healthy, with plenty of time to live.

“I was 28. I thought I was invincible,” he told HealthZette.

A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health research study, published in 2015, showed that teens who are significantly overweight (with a body mass index of over 30) are more than twice as likely to develop colorectal cancer in their 20s.

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“The Harvard study is yet another wake-up call that diet and exercise have to become standard in childhood, since it impacts life afterwards,” said Dr. Jerome D Waye, director of endoscopic education at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. He is no stranger to the link between excess weight and colorectal cancer.

“This research reinforces the known association of (being) overweight and (having) colon cancer,” he told LifeZette. “But it’s always been hard to tell young people about the serious impact of weight, since young people have a tendency to consider current life and not dwell on what will happen later.”

Denial of the medical impact of weight is the most common hindrance to changing unhealthy habits, according to many doctors who work with young people.

“Obesity is a major underlying link to colorectal cancer,” Dr. Strick Woods, a gastroenterologist in Fairfield, Connecticut, told LifeZette. “Lack of physical activity is another link. Addressing it starts at home.”

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Woods believes behavior modification is the route to success and stresses the quality, quantity, and timing of eating. He believes eating one big meal a day, which many busy people as well as dieters do, creates a burden on the digestive system.

Orla Macha of New York City wishes she had helped her son make changes earlier. He was diagnosed with colon cancer a year ago, at age 20, after being overweight from an early age.

“If only I realized colon cancer isn’t just for older adults, maybe it would have been a wake-up call for me,” Macha told LifeZette. “From a parent’s perspective, you can’t imagine how difficult it is when you hear the diagnosis. Now, we don’t just want our son to improve his diet — we want an overall attitude change, because he hasn’t cared about it. When your children are in their 20s, they are adults. You don’t have the luxury of being able to make all of their decisions as you once did.”

Debi Spence, a financial adviser in Minneapolis, Minnesota, agreed. Spence’s son was diagnosed at age 25.

“Doctors did tell us to make changes,” she said, with a palpable sadness in her voice. “Looking back, we tried to change our kids’ habits from time to time, but what we really needed to change was us. If we had taken the time to change our habits of fast food and living stressful lives when they were younger, we might not be watching this chemotherapy happen to him. It’s very tough.”

Despite an increase in public awareness, preventive screening for colorectal cancer still lags behind other cancer types. An estimated 24 million people, ages 50-75, are at higher risk but they remain unscreened. The National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, established by the American Cancer Society and the CDC, have set a goal of screening 80 percent of the at-risk population by the year 2018. Unless a history of colon cancer exists, however, those younger than 50 are rarely tested.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
Early detection boosts the survival rate. When the disease is caught in Stage 1, over 90 percent of people survive past five years.

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Part of the reluctance to screen is the nature of the gold standard test, a colonoscopy, which requires a temporary liquid diet and digestive tract cleansing.

In response, less invasive tests have entered the market, such as Cologuard, an FDA-approved, non-invasive stool DNA screening test. The test is not suggested for those with high-risk factors, but it can identify both altered DNA and blood biomarkers known to be associated with colorectal cancer and pre-cancers. In a study of 10,000 subjects, it showed a sensitivity of 92 percent.

Open dialogue about colorectal cancer, and its link to obesity, may prove part of the tipping point in which excess weight in teens gets serious attention and action.

Erly, whose treatment was successful, says his experience in his 20s still impacts him today. He visits the gym often, is a martial arts student, and keeps a healthy diet high on his priority list.

“I think about it all the time. I tell my friends to pay attention to their bodies and not to lead a sedentary life. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t ever wait,” he added. “Check everything out.”

Pat Barone, CPCC, BCC, MCC is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating; she helps clients heal food addictions.

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