SAN ANTONIO – The death of actor Chadwick Boseman at 43 has many asking questions about colon cancer at an early age.
Gloria Riojas was only 35 years old when she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.
“I was dealing with a lot of stomach issues, a lot of bloating, constipation, just irregular as far as bowel movements,” she said.
She had the symptoms for some time, she said. But doctors would always attribute it to a stomach virus or something else. In hindsight, the mother of four wishes she would have been more aggressive with demanding a second opinion or a scan.
“Demand a scan, demand something to be done because there’s a lot of misdiagnoses is out there,” she said. “If I could have caught this a lot earlier, I don’t think I would have been at stage four when I first found out.”
It’s hard to say how long ago Riojas started developing the polyps that morphed into cancer, but she says she had issues with bloating even as a child.
Dr. John Vizuete, a gastroenterologist with Gastroenterologist Clinic of San Antonio, said colon cancer is something people often think about when they’re older, but now they see more cases involving younger people.
“We are seeing it in younger and younger patients at more aggressive cancers and at later stages in younger people,” he said.
Family history always plays a role in cancer, but colon cancer is not always linked to genetics.
“70% or so of new colon cancers are what we would call sporadic, meaning they arise spontaneously in the individual, in somebody who doesn’t have a history in their family of colon cancer or even necessarily big polyps,” Vizuete said.
He said he has found polyps in females as young as 19 years old, and another one was nearing cancer stage in a 32-year-old woman.
Vizuete said colon cancer is preventable. African Americans are at higher risk and more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage. Obesity, diet and smoking all play a role, as well.
“To me, the big hurdle is going in to see your doctor in the first place,” he explains. “If you’re a young person, you’re used to things getting better on their own, and you think that a little bleeding here and there is just going to go away and not bother you anymore. I think that the stigma relates to ‘I don’t want to go in and declare I might have a problem.’”
He says there are noninvasive at-home testing methods that cost between a few dollars on the internet to up to $600. Many insurance companies now also begin covering colon cancer testing at 45 years old.
Vizuete said patients should also do their research before picking a gastroenterologist. He says to ask for the adenoma detection rate, ADR, which tells you how often the doctor locates precancerous polyps in the average risk patient. It should be between at least 25% and 30%. Seek for someone with a high ADR to their procedures, he said.
Riojas said she’s been in remission several times in four years and is currently undergoing treatment. She had no history of cancer in her family, but now her children will begin getting screened as early as 20 years old because of her diagnosis.
Riojas urges others to listen to their body.
“I’m still alive for a reason, and I’m still fighting hard for it. So it’s not time to give up yet,” she said.