Diagnosed at 35: Patient shares journey of early-onset colorectal cancer diagnosis

[Allina Health Newsroom, March 01, 2024] When Chris Rodriguez felt the pangs of a stomachache and constipation in 2023, he went to the doctor out of an abundance of caution. At 35 years old, he had no idea that months later he would be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

“In my mind, I wasn’t supposed to be looking out for this,” said Rodriguez. “When I got this test and diagnosis at an age you don’t expect, it felt so incredibly out of left field.”



Early-onset colorectal cancer on the rise

Colorectal Cancer is a term that refers to cancers that begin in the colon or rectum. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. In the past, it was considered an older person’s disease, but that is changing. Early-onset colorectal cancer is on the rise among people under the age of 50.


“A lot of people aren’t thinking about colorectal cancer in a 35-year-old,” said Joleen Hubbard, MD, a medical oncologist with Allina Health Cancer Institute who helped treat Rodriguez. “We have to educate the public on symptoms. We also have to educate our primary care providers to make sure we get timely referrals for patients to get an endoscopy or colonoscopy. We want to pick things up at an early stage where it is still very treatable and curable,” added Dr. Hubbard.


Symptoms of colorectal cancer

It took Rodriguez two trips to his primary care doctor to get a referral. The National Cancer Institute lists abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding and iron deficiency anemia as some of the most common symptoms of colorectal cancer. Rodriguez’s initial symptoms of a stomachache and constipation didn’t raise any alarms because of Rodriguez’s age and apparent good health. When he returned to the doctor to report blood in his stool, his primary care physician ordered a colonoscopy. The screening is typically recommended for people between the ages of 45 and 75, not someone who is 35.


What is a colonoscopy?

During a colonoscopy, a doctor examines the large intestine and rectum for polyps. Patients prepare the night before by taking a substance that cleans out the colon, and like Rodriguez, they are sedated during the actual procedure.


“When I woke up (from the colonoscopy), the doctor said I can’t tell you this (polyp) is cancer because we have to test it, but I can say I’m 90% sure it is (cancer),” recounted Rodriguez. “Once the official diagnosis came in, things started moving fast.”


Factors doctors have to consider with younger patients

“In the past, the average age of a colon cancer diagnosis was 67,” said Dr. Hubbard. “We didn’t have to think about things that we have to think about in younger patients, such as the fact that they are often working full-time jobs and have to continue working during treatment. Sometimes, they have young families. Sometimes they haven’t started a family yet, and we have to think about fertility preservation issues.”


Rodriguez continued to work his job as an animator throughout his treatment. He described going to chemotherapy every two weeks for 16 weeks as living in a fog. It caused fatigue, nausea and left his brain feeling cloudy.


He said he made it through chemo, radiation and surgery because of his care team and the support of his husband. Now, at age 36, he is cancer-free.




Share your story

“You need to be educated about this cancer creeping up into earlier ages. I will talk about it to anyone, any day. I’m being open so other people will have it on their radar,” added Rodriguez.

He wants to erase the stigma associated with talking about colons, rectums and stools.


As an improvisational performer, he continues to weave threads of his cancer journey into his performances to entertain and educate audiences.



Photo credit: Ariel Lopez


Learn more about colorectal cancer care.

Posted on March 01, 2024 in cancerAllina Health Cancer Institute

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