Colon cancer can hit people in their 30s, 40s without warning

What's behind troubling trend?

HOUSTON – For several years, Alexis Grahm suffered from abdominal pain. It was a problem her doctors repeatedly dismissed.

”They told me I have acid reflux, 'Don't worry about it.' Then one night, I was in a lot of pain and throwing up and I had chills," Grahm said. "And I went to the hospital."

She eventually got the correct diagnosis: stage four colon cancer. The disease was so advanced, it had already spread to her liver.

“Five days later, I had surgery," she said. "They took out five feet of my colon and a piece of my liver and 15 lymph nodes -- 10 of which were positive for being cancer."

Colorectal surgeon Dr. Steven Wexner said it's not clear why there's an increase in colon cancer among younger Americans.

“Presumably, it's something to do with diet and environment," Wexner said. "But there could also be a genetic shift."

Most younger people are diagnosed with the late-stage disease in part because half of all colorectal cancers don't show early symptoms.

“Patients present when they become very symptomatic later on, but it's been there for a long time," Wexner said.

Grahm is halfway through her chemotherapy treatments and looking forward to the future.

“This is not forever," she said. "It'll be over in three months. I can run the rest of my tests and continue with my life."

Many of these younger people with colon cancers have no family history of the disease, which is why it's so important to get a full physical every year, including a rectal exam.