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'Don't Take Your Health For Granted': When Bowel Cancer Hits At 33

Samuel Fitzpatrick might feel the healthiest he's ever been, but there was a time he feared he wouldn't be there for his little girl.

The young dad was diagnosed with stage-four bowel cancer last year, one day after his 33rd birthday.

"I lost my mum at 12, so I understand what it's like to grow up without a parent," he told 10 daily.

"To face that, and to be on the other side, the potential of having my daughter go through that same heartache really sucked."

Samuel Fitzpatrick with his partner and daughter. IMAGE: supplied

Fitzpatrick is not alone. While bowel cancers -- also known as colorectal cancers --  are often considered a risk for older generations, two new global studies have revealed they're rising significantly among those under 50.

A study of seven high-income countries, published in the Lancet medical journal this week, found the number of people in this age bracket diagnosed with colon cancer in the decade up to 2014 increased by 2.9 percent in Australia.

It is also up in New Zealand, by 3.1 percent in Denmark and by 1.8 percent in the U.K.

There were similar increases in those diagnosed with rectal cancer each year, while the number of Australian diagnoses of both types of cancers among those aged 50-74 dropped by 1.6 and 2.4 percent respectively.

While research is ongoing, the rise is tipped to be linked to diet and lifestyle.

READ MORE: Bowel Cancer Now High Risk For Young People, Not Just The Old 

Bowel cancer is known to be Australia's second deadliest cancer and the most common cause of cancer death for Australians aged between 25 and 29.

According to Bowel Cancer Australia CEO Julien Wiggen, almost one in 10 new cases now occur in Australians under 50.

"Never assume you're too young for bowel cancer," he said.

Fitzpatrick, who lives on the NSW Central Coast with his wife and three-year-old daughter, has a family history of the condition.

He was healthy and active when he started noticing symptoms, such as changes in his bowel movements and passing blood. But he said the symptoms were "dismissed" by two GPs who put them down to haemorrhoids, or swollen veins in the rectum and anus.

"I was 12 when my mum passed, so my memory of her was that she had cancer. My connection to bowel cancer wasn't that strong," he said.

"I still had energy, I was playing sport twice the week, so when they said it could be haemorrhoids, I kind of just accepted it," he said.

As his energy levels dropped, Fitzpatrick went to see a new GP, who asked about his family history and quickly referred him for a colonoscopy. Days later, a scan revealed an 11-centimetre tumour in his bowel and four lesions in his liver.

Bowel cancer has a very high survival rate if detected early, with up to 90 percent of cases able to be treated successfully. However, doctors say patients can be forced to wait long periods between detection and a follow-up colonoscopy.

While Fitzpatrick said he is lucky his body responded well to treatment, he feels he was "very close to it being too late".

"I think part of that thinking would play into me not pushing to get checked earlier," he said.

Calls To Lower Screening Age

The new research has firmed up calls from experts to lower the screening age for bowel cancer from 50 to 45, as recommended by the American Cancer Society.

Currently older Australians between 50-74 are offered free in-home screening kits every two years.

But experts are concerned young people might not consider the need to watch out for the condition, while doctors may discount that possibility when younger people present with health issues.

Associate Professor Graham Newstead, a colorectal surgeon and member of Bowel Cancer Australia, is treating an increased number of younger patients and agreed reviewing the screening age should be part of the solution.

"Most importantly, bowel cancer should not be dismissed by patients and GPs as a potential underlying cause of symptoms simply because the patient is younger," he said.

Newstead encouraged young people to learn about factors such as diet, lifestyle and family history as well as symptoms, blood in the stool, persistent changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain and unexplained anaemia.

IMAGE: supplied

Fitzpatrick urged young Aussies to not take their health for granted.

"If you have a strange symptom or a change in bowel movements, take it seriously," he said.

"While you might be able to physically put if off for some amount of time, it might be making things a lot worse."

Featured image: Supplied 

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au