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36-Year-Old Colon Cancer Patient Shares "Very Confusing" First Symptom

Researchers warn that this type of cancer is rapidly rising among younger adults.

Cancer is something most people only start to worry about when they get older—but recently, doctors in the U.S. have begun noticing a concerning new trend of colon cancer cases happening among younger adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. In a new interview with Today, second-grade teacher Stefania Frost revealed that she found herself part of this alarming pattern when she was diagnosed with colon cancer at 36. Her only warning sign? A "very confusing" first symptom.

RELATED: 34-Year-Old With Colorectal Cancer Reveals the Warning Signs He Missed.

Frost, who is now 40 and teaches in Waltham, Massachusetts, said her story began in June 2020 when she noticed a pain in her right side the day after her family had gotten together at a barbecue.

"I thought it was something that I ate or some kind of stomach bug going around," she told Today.

But when the pain hadn't gone away after a week, Frost decided to make a doctor's appointment. She said they sent her for imaging at first, thinking that it could be a symptom of appendicitis. But her scans came back showing inflammation around her colon, so her doctor also scheduled her for a colonoscopy.

It was after the colonoscopy that Frost received news that she never expected.

"Afterward, the doctor talked to me. I'm just waking up, and they said there was a tumor in the colon," she recalled, adding that she wasn't allowed to have her husband or daughter in the room at the time due to pandemic protocols. "It was really hard and very confusing."

She was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer and told that it had also spread to her lymph nodes—all of which came as a surprise to Frost, who was only 36 and wasn't experiencing any other symptoms.

Just weeks after she first noticed the pain on her right side, Frost ended up undergoing surgery in mid-July to remove the tumor in her colon and take out 49 lymph nodes, according to Today.

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Frost's story is likely not as uncommon as you might assume. In January, the American Cancer Society (ACS) released a new report revealing that rising colorectal cancer cases—which can start in the colon or rectum and are often just referred to as colon cancer—in younger adults "has rapidly shifted mortality patterns in adults under 50 years of age."

As a result, colorectal cancer has shot up from being the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in both younger men and women to the first in men and second in women, according to the ACS.

"It's unfortunately becoming a bigger problem every year," Michael Cecchini, MD, co-director of the colorectal program in the Center for Gastrointestinal Cancers and medical oncologist at Yale Cancer Center, told The New York Times, noting that early-onset colorectal cancers have been increasing by about 2 percent every year since the mid-'90s.

Researchers are still working to figure out why this increase is happening. Some are pointing to genetic, lifestyle, and dietary changes, but many experts maintain that none of these can fully explain the rise in early-onset colorectal cancer.

"For a lot of these risk factors, like smoking, you have to be exposed for long periods of time before the cancer develops," Andrea Cercek, co-director of the Center for Young Onset Colorectal and Gastrointestinal Cancers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told the NYT.

Cercek added that a large number of the patients in their 20s and 30s don't fit with the usual risk groups for this cancer.

"Many of our patients are athletes," she said. "Many of them were never heavy, not even in childhood."

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While experts are trying to determine whether other environmental factors could be to blame, Aparna Parikh, MD, Frost's oncologist and medical director of the Center for Young Adult Colorectal Cancer at Mass General Brigham, told Today that another major problem is the often "big diagnostic delay" for younger patients.

As Parikh explained, young people are likely to assume or be told by their doctors that they're dealing with something less severe like hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome—even when they have symptoms linked to colon cancer, like Frost did.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), abdominal pain, aches, or cramps that don't go away are common signs of colorectal cancer.

Parikh said that type of pain is something you shouldn't ignore. Other possible symptoms of colon cancer you should watch for include unexplained weight loss, blood in the rectum or stool, and unexplained anemia, according to the oncologist.

Frost, who is nearly four years out from her colon cancer diagnosis, said she is encouraging her friends to take their health seriously.

"I'm trying to tell other people, especially my friends, 'Go get colonoscopies when you're 45,'" she said.

She added that if you notice concerning symptom, go to the doctor sooner rather than later—which Parikh agreed with.

"Listen to your body. And advocate for yourself if you're not sure," the oncologist advised.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Kali Coleman
Kali Coleman is a Senior Editor at Best Life. Her primary focus is covering news, where she often keeps readers informed on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and up-to-date on the latest retail closures. Read more
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