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What Vermonters should know about colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is a preventable and highly treatable form of cancer. Regular screening can lead to detection at an early stage, when the prognosis is good.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer for men and women in Vermont, and it is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the state, said Dr. Randy Holcombe, the director of the University of Vermont Cancer Center and an expert in colorectal cancer.

But, colorectal cancer is a preventable and highly treatable form of cancer. Regular screenings can help detect it early and lead to higher survival rates.

"If it's caught early and localized, then survival rate is about 80% at five years," he said on Vermont Edition. "Unfortunately, if it's found when it's metastatic, or spread — that would be a Stage 4 cancer — then the five-year survival rate is only about 11%. So it makes a huge difference to try to catch the cancer early."

A recent report by the American Cancer Society found colorectal cancer rates are going up significantly among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, while rates are declining in people over 65.

Dr. Holcombe said the incidence rates are still much higher for people over 50, and those rates have been falling for the past 20 years. But, for people under age 50, the incidence rates are rising. Because of the increase in colorectal diagnoses in people under 50, the United States Preventative Services Task Force in 2021 lowered the recommended age of screenings to 45 years old.

Because people aren't being screened in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, he said, often the cancer is detected in later stages in young people.

If colorectal cancer runs in a person's family or a person is experiencing unusual symptoms, they should talk to their doctor about potentially being screened earlier than age 45.

"If [you're] having really have to be persistent and bring that to the attention of your physician and talk about the possibility of getting screening. I think that a lot of primary care physicians are not used to seeing cancer in their patients that are in their 30s," Dr. Holcombe said.

Kaki McGeary, a survivor of rectal cancer who lives in Essex, Vermont, encouraged people to get screened. She was 43 years old and considered herself a healthy, active person when she was diagnosed in 2015. After she experienced changes with her bowel movements and heard about another mother in her community who had died from colorectal cancer, she decided to see a doctor.

She said her treatment took a year and included chemotherapy, radiation and two surgeries. She said it's important to her to share her story, so that other people will listen to their bodies and seek medical help early.

"Don't wait. Colonoscopies really aren't that bad," she said. "It pales in comparison to what you would go through if you end up having to have extensive cancer treatment."

Broadcast live on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.