Raven-Symoné's 31-year-old brother dies of colon cancer — why young people are now more at risk in Canada

Alarming new studies suggest colorectal cancer rates are rising in young people. Should you be screened early?

colon cancer rising in young adults, Raven-Symoné's younger brother, Blaize Pearman, 31, has died following a two-year battle with colon cancer (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images).
Raven-Symoné's younger brother, Blaize Pearman, 31, has died following a two-year battle with colon cancer (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images).

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Raven-Symoné's younger brother, Blaize Pearman, has died following a two-year battle with colon cancer — he was only 31.

In an Instagram post thanking her followers for their birthday messages, the "Raven's Home" actress announced her brother's passing.

"Last month, I lost my brother Blaize. He was battling colon cancer for about two years and he is in a better place now," the 38-year-old said. "He is loved and missed, and the emotions that have been weaving in and out of my body and mind and family have been a roller coaster. I love you, Blaize."

At 31, Pearman was remarkably younger than the average age of a colon cancer patient. In Canada, 93 per cent of cases occur in adults ages 50 and over. However, his age is consistent with alarming new data from the American Cancer Society that indicates colorectal cancer is rising in younger adults.

Colorectal cancer is rising among young adults

According to the report by the American Cancer Society, the number of people 55 and younger diagnosed with colorectal cancer doubled from 11 per cent (1 in 10) in 1995 to 20 per cent (1 in 5) in 2019. The report, published in March 2023, predicted that 19,550 people under the age of 50 would be diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year in the U.S., and 3,750 of those people would die from the disease.

One Canadian study from 2019 found the incidence of colorectal cancer among young adults has been rising by more than three per cent each year, despite incidence rates decreasing among older adults. Rates of colorectal cancer are "possibly accelerating" among adults 50 and younger, which is a "cause for concern," according to the report's authors.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is a disease that affects your large intestine (colon) or your rectum (the end of the colon).

Colon and rectal cancers are grouped together as colorectal cancer because the two organs are made of the same tissues without a distinct border between them.

When cells in the colon or rectum no longer grow or behave normally, the changes may lead to non-cancerous tumours, precancerous conditions (i.e. adenomas) or colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer can affect anyone at any age — "Black Panther" actor Chadwick Boseman passed away from the disease at age 43 and Blaize Pearman at 31; however, 93 per cent of cases in Canada occur in adults ages 50 and over.

According to Canadian Cancer Statistics, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in Canada. Approximately one in 14 men will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in their lifetimes, alongside one in every 18 women.

"Black Panther" actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at age 43 (Photo via Getty)
"Black Panther" actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at age 43 (Photo via Getty)

What are the warning signs and symptoms of colon cancer?

Colorectal cancer may not present any significant signs or symptoms in its early stages, making it all the more important to stay up-to-date on your colon health and get screened regularly. If caught in its early stages, colorectal cancer is 90 per cent curable.

According to the American Cancer Society, a polyp can take as long as 10 to 15 years to develop into cancer. Therefore, symptoms often only start appearing once a tumour grows and affects the surrounding organs and tissues. The early signs of colorectal cancer are often similar to other health conditions, including anemia and irritable bowel syndrome.

Dr. Monika Krzyzanowska, a medical oncologist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, told Yahoo Canada in a previous interview that one of the early signs of the disease is a change in bowel habits.

"[People] may not be going as often [to the bathroom] as they usually do," she told Yahoo Canada. "The calibre of your stool may change. For example, it can become thinner or more narrow."

Krzyzanowska noted that abdominal pain, bleeding and unexplained weight loss are causes for concern, alongside iron-deficiency anemia.

"One of the things people may not know [to pay attention to] is iron-deficiency anemia," she said. "They may be feeling tired, go see their family doctor, and are found to be anemic. This can sometimes be an initial presentation of colon cancer."

Other signs or symptoms of colorectal cancer may include:

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Narrow stool (compared to average)

  • Blood in the stool

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Anemia

  • Abdominal cramps and pain

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Pain or discomfort in the rectum

  • Bleeding from the rectum

old man clutching stomach with hands wearing blue jeans and plaid shirt, colon cancer
Constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain may be signs of colon cancer (Photo via Getty).

Krzyzanowska said the urgent symptoms you should never ignore are "any sort of severe abdominal pain or abdominal pain associated with nausea, vomiting and an inability to pass stool," as they could be symptoms of a bowel obstruction.

Who is at risk for colon cancer?

Colorectal cancer can affect anyone, but people living with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) are at an increased risk compared to the general population.

The average age of a colorectal cancer diagnosis is in people aged 50 and over, with the risk increasing with age.

Risk factors include a family history of polyps and colon cancer, obesity, smoking, alcohol, sedentary behaviour and a diet high in processed and red meat.

"Ironically, a lot of the lifestyle factors [that are good for colon health] are good for other things as well," says Krzyzanowska. "Having a healthy diet, not smoking and having a good weight" can decrease your risk of the disease.

Why are colorectal cancer rates rising among young people?

No one can say for certain why colorectal cancer numbers are rising in young people; however, some experts theorize that increased incidence rates could be linked to dietary or lifestyle factors.

A sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking, heavy alcohol use, low-fiber, high-fat diets, diets high in processed meats, and other environmental factors have all been linked to colorectal cancer. However, more research needs to be done to explain why people under 50 are now at an increased risk of developing the disease.

Should younger people get screened for colon cancer?

Despite increased colorectal cancer rates among young people, Canada's screening policies still recommend waiting until 50 for average-risk adults.

However, some studies note that lowering the screening age "may be justified."

At present, an average-risk adult is someone between 50 and 74 with no first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) who has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. If you have a personal history of colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease or other higher-risk factors, your doctor may suggest to begin screening early.

While a stool test is no one's idea of a good time, it saves thousands of lives every year.

"Colon cancer is one of the few cancers that we do have an effective screening test," said Krzyzanowska. "The evidence is quite strong that screening for colon cancer can decrease the incident [rate] and increases survival, so if you're in the right age group, go ahead and get screened."

Similar to cervical cancer screening, screening for colorectal cancer looks to find and identify polyps before they ever become cancerous.

human body of in blue and black with colon tumour highlighted, colorectal cancer anatomy
Stool tests save thousands of lives each year (Photo via Getty).

"If you're picking up a polyp, and you can remove it, then you're moving the diagnosis a lot earlier in the disease course," Krzyzanowska said.

"I know it's scary to think you might have cancer, but it's better to be picked up early or at the pre-cancerous stage."

Colorectal cancer is "treatable, but you need to be availing yourself to the screening tests that are available," she said. "If you're having any kind of symptoms, seeking medical attention early" can save your life.

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