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The story of one man who was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 35


Colorectal cancer is on the rise among people under 50. Since the mid-1990s, cases have increased about 50% among younger adults, and it is one of the deadliest cancers in this age group. Doctors are even seeing cases in people in their 20s and 30s. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on what doctors and scientists think may be fueling the rise.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: About six years ago, Deondre Williams, who lives in Covington, Ga., noticed something that concerned him. He had blood in his stool, which can be an early warning sign of colorectal cancer. At the time, he was 35 years old and really into weightlifting. He had bulked up to 240 pounds, all muscle, he says.

DEONDRE WILLIAMS: I saw blood in my stool, and I decided to diagnose myself with hemorrhoids by going to Google and picking the least of the worst possible scenarios.

AUBREY: He did not go to the doctor right away because he figured the hemorrhoids would go away. And looking back, he says he was in denial that he was vulnerable to something more serious.

WILLIAMS: I thought I was healthy.

AUBREY: He laid off weightlifting for a few weeks, but the bleeding did not stop. Instead, it got worse. When he did seek medical care, he was sent for a colonoscopy, and he remembers the moment he woke up after the anesthesia had worn off.

WILLIAMS: I just remember my wife sitting there, and he came in and was just like, yeah, we saw some polyps, and it looks like it's going to be cancerous. After that, I shut down. All I heard was cancer.

AUBREY: He was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and he had a tumor. Then he had surgery to remove a portion of his colon. Six years later, he's back to volunteer football coaching and speaking at community events about the importance of colorectal cancer screening.

WILLIAMS: My status now is 100% free of cancer. So I - it's like, I speak it; I live it. I do everything I can to make sure it doesn't even resurface.

AUBREY: He does have a family history of colon cancer, so he says he'll make sure his children are screened at an even younger age. And he says he thinks a lot more now about how he and his family cook, eat and exercise. Dr. Kimmie Ng directs the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber in Boston. She says there's a lot of research underway now to figure out what may be fueling the rise in people under 50.

KIMMIE NG: We know that colorectal cancer is one of the cancers that is most strongly linked to diet and lifestyle, so no matter what age you are diagnosed, certain factors are associated with a higher risk. And those include obesity, sedentary behavior and a Western-pattern diet which is high in processed foods and sugars.

AUBREY: Looking back, Deondre Williams says he may have been eating in a way that was harmful to his health, going all the way back to childhood.

WILLIAMS: I was an athlete. My dad was a truck driver, so everything was grab and go. It was never a time that we really had to sit down other than Sunday dinner with Grandma.

AUBREY: He says too often he was eating the kinds of foods that he now tries to avoid.

WILLIAMS: Processed foods, processed meats - bacon, sausages - too much red meat, too much sugar - what you mainly - basically your white sugars, white bread.

AUBREY: Now, he says he eats completely differently - a lot more produce, fruit. He tries to focus on lean proteins and healthy fats. He says he feels good and is trying to inspire others in his community. He says people need to know about screening, signs and symptoms. And he says many people do listen when he talks about how he changed his habits. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.