Triangle colon cancer survivors encourage earlier screening as panel drops recommended age to 45

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths, and health officials are concerned about increases in younger people.

Though cases in those 50 and older are on the downturn, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute said colorectal cancer is on track to double in people younger than 50 by 2030.

Here in the Triangle, the memory of Marlee Helbig's diagnosis is ingrained in her memory.

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"(I was) a little bit shocked, probably. My husband passed out," Helbig recalled of her stage 4 diagnosis a decade ago.

At the time, she was 37 years old and the mother of two young children.

"I'm still here. I'm not sure I should be statistically speaking, the odds of me beating it were pretty low. I'm here for a reason, and I think part of that is to hopefully prevent other people experiencing this," Helbig said.

She is now an advocate and active fundraiser, participating in the Get Your Rear in Gear event to help fund colon cancer screening and prevention in Raleigh.

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Brooks Bell is a fellow survivor and advocate.

"I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer when I was 38. I had to talk to three different doctors before I was able to qualify for a colonoscopy," Bell said.

Earlier this year, she celebrated being one year cancer-free. Bell, who serves as a board member of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance and the CDC Foundation, is pleased with Tuesday's announcement.

"It is a really big day for colorectal cancer prevention. We've been working on this for several years, and this is the most exciting update in this industry in at least 40 years," Bell said.

Helbig hopes it will mean increased awareness and ultimately save more lives.

"It will definitely increase the amount of screening and catch those diagnoses earlier, which is great for your overall chance of survival and treatment," she said. "And I think it continues to bring awareness and education to colon cancer. It's kind of taboo."

Neither Bell or Helbig had family history of the disease, and each had surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy as part of their treatment.

"It has been very difficult to get a colonoscopy if you're under the age of 50, or at least very expensive," Bell said. "And this guideline change is really important because now it's going to start at 45 and now you can get a colonoscopy with just a co-pay, which makes it much more accessible for up to 19 million more people."

Dr. Hanna Sanoff, the Clinical Medical Director at N.C. Cancer Hospital and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, said she has seen an increase in younger patients.

"It's just so heartbreaking to see folks come in when they're young," Sanoff said. "I actually would love to see the screening age even younger, but 45 is a great start."

Symptoms include blood in the stool, bowel changes, abdominal pain, weakness or fatigue, and unexplained weight loss.

"There are a couple of different ways you can screen for colorectal cancer," Sanoff said. "One is stool-testing, which needs to happen every year if that's the choice you want to make if you don't want a colonoscopy. If you decide for a colonoscopy-based screening, where they actually go in and visualize the inside of your entire colon, then they make a recommendation to you based on what they find."

If your colon is clear and you have no family history, then you don't need another colonoscopy for 10 years, Sanoff noted.

What if your colon isn't clear?

"If they find polyps for example and remove those, which is great because it's not just screening but also prevention from taking those polyps out you prevent yourself from getting cancer, then they would then make a decision based on what kind of polyp that is," Sanoff explained. "So, if it's an aggressive-looking one, they may say one to two years. If it's a very unaggressive one that seems unlikely to turn to cancer, you might get a three- to five-year recommendation."

Sanoff said people can reach out directly to their primary doctor to learn about screening options.
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