“I always say they gutted me like a deer,” said the upbeat and positive Mr. Halladay, who has returned to work as a financial adviser while undergoing chemo.
Surgical oncologist Shady Ashamalla, head of colon cancer surgery at Sunnybrook, said Mr. Halladay’s story is all too common; about 40 per cent of the 250 to 300 patients he operates on each year are under the age of 50.
While the rate of colon cancer in North Americans over the age of 50 is declining, likely due to screening programs, incidence of the disease is rising “exponentially” among younger adults, he said.
A recent U.S. study found incidence has been going up by about 1 per cent a year for people in their 40s; 2.5 per cent annually for those in their 30s; and 7 per cent a year among those in their 20s, he said.
“Your chances of getting colon cancer as a young adult now is many times greater than it was at the same age in 1990, for example,” Dr. Ashamalla said. In fact, those born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer compared with people born around 1950.
Doctors aren’t sure why some people are developing the malignancy earlier in adulthood, but they point to such risk factors as diets high in red meat, sedentary lifestyles, excess alcohol intake, obesity and in some cases, family history.
Barry Stein, president of Colorectal Cancer Canada, said about 1,500 young adults in this country are diagnosed each year with colorectal cancer and, too often, many are dealing with advanced disease because either they or their doctors didn’t recognize symptoms for what they were.
Mr. Stein and Dr. Ashamalla both stress that certain signs – rectal bleeding or blood in the stool; changes in bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation, or a change in stool consistency; and persistent abdominal discomfort – should be scrutinized without delay to rule out cancer.
“It behooves health-care practitioners, now with what we know, to really take any of these symptoms very seriously in all patients, regardless of age,” Dr. Ashamalla said. “And it’s important that patients bring these things to their family doctor or nurse practitioner to make sure they’re being investigated and not to just write things off.”
It’s all about raising awareness, he said.
That’s why the Halladays have thrown themselves into efforts to raise money for Colorectal Cancer Canada’s Never Too Young program, which is putting on an event in Toronto on Sunday called Bowl’n For My Colon. As of Thursday, participants had raised nearly $170,000 in pledges.
For Ms. Halladay, the goal is to make the fundraiser an annual event across Canada, with a longer-term objective of seeing Never Too Young clinics across this country, “because that is the only way that we are going to diminish the number of people who die of this disease.”
She also wants to get the message out to young adults that they are not immune to colon cancer and to pay attention to any suspicious symptoms.
Ms. Halladay doesn’t want others to go through the experiences her family has – including having to tell daughters Madeline and Lauren, now 12 and 14, three times about their father’s cancer diagnoses, seeing them “literally crumble” each time at the news.
With her husband soon to finish his last round of chemo, Ms. Halladay hopes that his post-treatment scans will come back cancer-free and continue that way, “so that we can start to put this behind us.”
“And instead of living every day waiting for the shoe to drop, we start to just live our lives.”