Colorectal cancer is a new threat to young adults (video)

Millennials face twice the risk of colorectal cancer compared to baby boomers

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Along with an  urgent warning to not let COVID-19 get in the way of routine coloscopies, the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is raising the alarm about what is becoming an unlikely killer of young adults.

Fear of stomas keeps some from getting the help they need

The fear of having a stoma or “bag” resulting from a colon cancer surgery can sometimes deter young adults from seeking a colon cancer screening, especially if the person is young and single.

“I weighed the options,” said colon cancer survivor Teri Rivera. “And life with a stoma was a lot more appealing than life with cancer, which would likely result in not being around to live life at all.”

A stoma is an opening in the belly that’s made during surgery and may be needed only temporarily to give the colon time to rest and heal from surgery. Sometimes, though, a stoma is needed for the rest of the person’s life.  

Such is the case with Rivera’s stoma, which is now a constant companion and one she has learned to manage without letting it interfere with her life—even her dating life.

“It isn’t noticeable to most people and I’ve found that it really doesn’t get in the way of romance,” said Rivera.

The American Cancer Society says that communication is a key factor for those in intimate relationships while living with a stoma.

A stoma is basically the end of the intestine and the pinkish shade of the lining looks a lot like the inside lining of your cheek. Stomas are round to oval and may look quite large at first but will shrink to its final size about six to eight weeks after surgery. Stomas may stick out a little, while others are flat against the skin.

There are different types of ostomy procedures to create the stomas, depending on where the colon cancer is found and the point along the colon where the surgery took place. For instance, ileostomies are done higher on the abdomen and colostomies are done in the lower abdomen.

Support groups can help colon cancer survivors adapt to life with a stoma and the UC Davis Colorectal Cancer Program is a good place to get questions answered.

UC Davis oncologists and surgeons are accustomed to treating the most advanced and challenging cases of colorectal cancer and have built a reputation for innovative therapies and surgical techniques that minimize the need for temporary or permanent stomas.

Millennials have twice the risk of colorectal cancer compared to those born in 1950, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The same study found that people younger than 55 are nearly 60% more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage disease than older adults. That makes the odds of surviving the devastating disease more challenging.

In response to the rising rates of colorectal cancer among younger people, the American Cancer Society (ACS) updated its guidelines in 2018. The new guidelines lowered the recommended colorectal cancer screening age from 50 to 45.

“Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer death among people under 50, with rates of new diagnoses continuing at a disturbing pace,” said Richard Bold, physician-in-chief of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Bold said it is unclear the exact cause for the tragic cancer trend, although diet and physical activity may be contributing factors.

Between 2012 and 2016, the National Cancer Institute said colorectal cancer was the deadliest cancer for men, 20-49 years of age, and the third deadliest cancer for women in the same age group.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too young.”

Teri Rivera is one of the lucky ones.

Teri Rivera
Colon cancer survivor Teri Rivera says her stoma doesn’t slow her down. Photo by Jessica Peña @jessshootme

She began noticing blood after using the bathroom. She was told the blood was due to hemorrhoids, which seemed a likely diagnosis for the young mother of five who was only 43. It wasn’t until almost seven years later that her local doctor suggested a colonoscopy, a common procedure that screens for colorectal cancer.

The exam revealed a six-centimeter polyp, which was removed and biopsied. At 51, Rivera was diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer. The prognosis was dire.

She sought a second opinion at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, a short drive from her Stockton home.

“The staff at UC Davis explained everything to me, and how it was going to work,” she said. “It was the quickest response I had ever received since the time of my diagnosis.”

She received the excellent news from her UC Davis oncologist that, despite her stage III diagnosis, radiation wasn’t necessary. Her treatment consisted of chemotherapy, then surgery, followed by another round of chemotherapy. That was 2017 and she is now cancer free.

“There have been some difficult ups and downs, but I was treated by a very thorough, understanding, caring and supportive team at UC Davis,” she said.

For others finding themselves with a cancer diagnosis, she encourages them to be an advocate for their own care, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too young. Cancer does not discriminate against age.”

To schedule a colorectal cancer screening or an appointment, call 800 770-9261.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center serving the Central Valley and inland Northern California, a region of more than 6 million people. Its specialists provide compassionate, comprehensive care for more than 10,000 adults and children every year, and access to more than 150 clinical trials at any given time. Its innovative research program engages more than 280 scientists at UC Davis who work collaboratively to advance discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Patients have access to leading-edge care, including immunotherapy and other targeted treatments. Its Community Outreach and Education program addresses disparities in cancer outcomes across diverse populations, and the Center provides comprehensive education and workforce development programs for the next generation of clinicians and scientists. Through the Cancer Care Network, UC Davis partners with hospitals and clinical centers throughout the Central Valley and Northern California communities to offer patients expert care close to home.  For more information, visit