By Pat Carragher - May 19, 2023
Bailey McBreen was on vacation in Nashville with her fiance in 2021 when she started experiencing something unusual.
“I was burping a lot,” McBreen said. “I would burp five to 10 times a day. This was not normal for me.”
McBreen, who was 24 at the time, started experiencing acid reflux a few months later. Her doctors dismissed the gastrointestinal symptoms as being related to her anxiety. Now 25 and working as a nurse, she grew concerned when her health continued to worsen. Earlier this year she began experiencing excruciating pain, appetite loss and the inability to go to the bathroom.
Common Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer
- Changes in bowel habits
- Rectal bleeding
- Unintentional weight loss
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- Unexplained fatigue
“From that point on, my symptoms started to snowball,” McBreen said. “I was thinking that all my symptoms truly were only symptoms of a bowel obstruction.”
After multiple rounds of testing, a second CT scan revealed that she did have an obstruction, but it was worse than she could’ve imagined. The blockage was due to a tumor in her colon. McBreen was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer.
“Internally I was having a panic attack. Externally I was frozen,” McBreen said. “Hearing that news was just a very out-of-body experience. Because I’m a nurse, I felt like I was watching a doctor deliver a diagnosis to a patient. It didn’t click to me that I was a patient.”
McBreen is not alone. Colorectal cancer rates in younger people have climbed in recent years. Even more concerning, many new cases are discovered at an advanced stage and researchers aren’t sure why.
According to a recent study from the American Cancer Society, the percentage of colorectal cancer diagnoses that occurred in people under age 55 doubled between 1995 and 2019, increasing from 11% to 20%.
Another study published in JAMA in 2021 estimates that by the year 2040, colorectal cancer will be the leading cause of cancer deaths in people ages 20–49.
“The incidence of colorectal cancer patients has declined in the past few decades, except for one group,” said Dr. Iman Imanirad, an oncologist in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. “That’s adults under the age of 50.”
According to Imanirad, there are several guesses for what’s behind this concerning trend, but researchers can’t say for sure.
“Things like genetic predispositions, Westernized lifestyle, diet and lack of exercise, as well as early exposure to certain antibiotics and overall gut microbiome have been implicated in pathogenesis of young onset colorectal cancer,” Imanirad said.
Red Flag Symptoms
- Abdominal Pain
- Rectal bleeding
- Iron-deficiency anemia
A recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute points to four “red flag” symptoms that researchers believe could be a sign of early onset colorectal cancer. Abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, diarrhea and iron-deficiency anemia were identified as the key symptoms that doctors should be on the lookout for.
According to the study, symptoms can begin as early as two years before colorectal cancer is diagnosed.
“These are the symptoms that many young patients and their primary care providers often shoot down,” Imanirad said. “These can be potential symptoms of a more sinister process going on in the background. When two or more of these symptoms appear, that increases the likelihood of serious disease.”
McBreen is halfway through a 12-week round of chemotherapy after having surgery to remove her tumor in January. Her doctors will determine the next course of action after chemotherapy is complete. In the meantime, she wants to use her story to raise awareness for other young people that may be experiencing concerning symptoms of their own.
“The 10 months leading up to my diagnosis, I was actually the healthiest I had ever been,” McBreen said. “I worked out five to six times a week consistently for at least 14 months. Cancer does not discriminate. Anything that is new to you, even if it’s otherwise considered a normal thing, needs to be addressed.”