EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Colorectal cancer cases have been rising sharply among young adults.
The deaths of celebrities like “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman and actress Kirstie Alley have drawn the illness into the spotlight. Brazilian soccer superstar Pele died Thursday after a battle with colon cancer.
Experts now recommend getting screened at age 45.
“My husband and I, we got married pretty young, when we were 21. We were high school sweethearts and so we started our family young,” Jennie Kortman of East Grand Rapids said.
Two years ago, Kortman and her husband decided they had room for one more baby.
“We just love kids and busyness and all of that. We just decided that we would see what it’s like to be older parents as well,” Kortman said.
At age 39, Kortman was nearing the third trimester of her pregnancy when she received news that turned her life upside down.
“I honestly went into that appointment thinking, ‘I’m just ruling this out because I’ve had this symptom. I’ve had blood in my stool on and off for six-plus months,'” she recalled.
That blood was the only symptom she had. At the appointment, doctors told her she likely had colon cancer.
“There’s an alarming trend of younger patients that we are seeing in our clinic. These are patients less than 50s — so 40s, even 30s. I just saw a young girl, 27 years old,” said Dr. Manish Thakur, a hematologist and medical oncologist at Corewell Health (formerly Spectrum Health).
Thakur said the biggest risk factor for colon cancer is age but a lack of fiber in our diets, the type of meats we eat and a sedentary lifestyle can all contribute to a higher risk.
“It’s a combination of more factors than one. So it’s how you live and what you eat. I think those are the things that are leading to that new change here,” Thakur said.
Kortman didn’t have any of those risk factors.
“I was just had turned 39. I’m young, I’m healthy, I have no family history of it,” she said.
Working together, Kortman’s doctors decided her little girl would have to be delivered early so she could get on with her treatment. The plan was to wait a few more weeks to allow the baby to grow a little more and then deliver her at 32 weeks.
“(The doctor) was willing to wait a few extra weeks to allow that to happen, and then that’s as long as (the doctor was) willing to wait for surgery,” Kortman said.
Two weeks after baby Emersyn was born, Kortman underwent bowel resection surgery. Pathology confirmed the tumor was stage 3 colorectal cancer. The day after Emersyn was released from neonatal intensive care, Kortman met with oncologist to be told she would undergo six months of chemotherapy.
Now a year out of treatment, Kortman has a clean bill of health. Emersyn is 2.
“It was just honestly like a whole community surrounding us. And honestly, like in hindsight, just seeing it, it was just actually beautiful,” Kortman said.
Kortman said she wanted to speak about her case because since her diagnosis, she has seen other young people in her circle be diagnosed, too.
“Other moms, other women in their 30s, 40s, 50s. It is on the rise right now,” Kortman said.
Dr. Thakur said the best thing people can do is get screened because the most common symptom of colorectal cancer is nothing.
“I would say yes, everybody should go for a colonoscopy. However daunting it seems, it’s a procedure that has saved lives,” Thakur said.