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Take symptoms of colorectal cancer seriously

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 1 in 23 men and 1 in 25 women will develop colorectal cancer during their lifetime.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of colorectal cancer often do not surface until it has spread, which is why it is important to be screened regularly,” said Kit Tam, an oncologist with the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Key symptoms of colorectal cancer:
• A change in bowel habits
• Blood in stool
• Iron deficiency anemia
• Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty completely
• Abdominal pain, ache or cramps that don’t go away
• Losing weight without knowing why
• Weakness or fatigue

It is important not to dismiss symptoms, thinking you may be too young for colorectal cancer. 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.

In response to the rising rates of colorectal cancer among younger people, the recommended colorectal cancer screening age was lowered from 50 to 45 in 2018.

The Colorectal Cancer Alliance is using Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month to ask Americans to take a pledge and get colonoscopies back on track after they plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Screening Pledge connects signers with resources and reminders to get screened for colorectal cancer. Go to to take the pledge or go to to schedule your screening.

Jennifer Dunn was having excruciating stomach pains, and she couldn’t find relief.

“The pain was so intense,” said Dunn. “I started seeking treatment in as many places as I could.”

Dunn was a 39-year-old teacher living in Humboldt County, a rural area where doctors sometimes rotate through their services, making it challenging to obtain specialty care.

Due to her young age, the possibility of a colon cancer diagnosis was overlooked for more than a year. In 2019, two months after her 40th birthday, she made what would be a critical visit to a local emergency room.

“It became very hard to trust my own body. The long ordeal has drained me of my confidence,” she said. “It was desperation that helped me refuse to budge that day until more was done.”

A CT scan identified multiple lesions occupying 70% of her liver. Later, a biopsy confirmed that she had colon cancer and it was very advanced.

Dunn thought of her daughter who was just 9 years old at the time. “There have to be options,” she said to herself.

Her brother, a Yale professor, searched for a place for her to receive better care and recommended the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center where, she said, she finally found people who would listen.

“I didn’t know oncologists pick up the phone and call! I was so surprised,” said Dunn. “I had gone from feeling like a ghost, going around asking everyone I could to help me find care, to—finally—this team that opened their arms. It was a totally different relationship.”

She set an appointment with the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center and met with Sepideh Gholami, a UC Davis surgeon-scientist specializing in cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, liver and pancreas.

When Gholami learned of the severity of the colonic obstructions, she immediately sought out UC Davis surgeon Wissam J. Halabi. From there, things moved fast:  Dunn’s tumor was removed within 24 hours. She stayed in the area to recover before returning to Humboldt. 

Colon cancer patient Jennifer Dunn gets chemotherapy as her mother sits next to her.

In April, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Dunn and her husband relocated their family to Sacramento to be close to the cancer center.

Dunn is participating in an innovative treatment for patients with colon and bile duct cancers, in which chemotherapy is delivered both systemically and directly into her liver.  She is one of the first patients to undergo the treatment at UC Davis.

“I have fortunately responded very well,” said Dunn.

By sharing her experience, Dunn hopes to make a difference in someone else’s life.