ALTOONA, BLAIR COUNTY - A new study shows the number of colon cancer cases has dropped 30 percent in the last decade for people 50 and older, thanks to a tripling in the number of adults having colonoscopies. However, the rates of colon cancer are going up slightly for Americans under 50.
"Oh, I was shocked, completely shocked. A 40-year-old should not have colon cancer," Dana Thompson says. The Altoona woman had no family history of colon cancer and had never really heard much about the disease. But she did have obvious symptoms of colon cancer.
At Blair Gastroenterology Associates, Dr. Ralph McKibbin says, "the biggest symptoms that you really need to look out for are pain or bleeding. Simply put colon cancer is like skin cancer on the inside."
"It was very apparent," Dana says. "I don't know what part of me considered it to be normal or not needing to be checked out, but that is not normal."
Colon cancer symptoms include rectal bleeding, blood in the stool,changes in bowel habits,such as diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain or cramping, fatigue, and weight loss.
Dana waited six to nine months before seeing a doctor who recommended a colonoscopy. The test did find cancer, but fortunately it was stage one,
She had to have surgery, but not radiation or chemotherapy. Dana's been cancer-free for eight years, and says, "I was very lucky, very, very lucky."
And she never misses her regular colonscopies.
Dr. McKibbin says, "come in, get checked. We'll take the little polyps and growths off, you'll be done with it, we'll prevent cancer."
In people with no symptoms and no family history of colon cancer, 50 is the age recommended for a first colonoscopy. But as Dana can tell you, that doesn't mean you can wait if you have symptoms of the disease at an earlier age.
According to Dr. McKibbin, here in Pennsylvania and the rest of the northeastern United States, we have to pay particular attention to colon cancer, because the risk is 20 percent higher than in other areas of the country.