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'Don't wait' to get checked out, says Quebec teen with colon cancer

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An 18-year-old from Laval is among an increasing number of young adults and teens to be inflicted with colon cancer.

Justin Di Narzo says knowing the symptoms could be the difference between life and death.

"It started at 16 years old. I was experiencing constipation and blood in the stools," Di Narzo told CTV News.

After some tests, he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. It's an aggressive disease considered extremely rare for his age, according to pediatric hematologist and oncologist Catherine Goudie.

"It is definitely not the first diagnosis that you think about when a kid walks in feeling tired, feeling bloated, having low red blood cells," she explained.

It's so rare that Di Narzo was transferred to adult care at the Royal Victoria Hospital, where Dr. Jamil Asselah reports seeing more and more younger patients.

"I have two patients, 20 and 18 years old, which is unique," said the oncologist.

After two years of gruelling chemotherapy and surgeries, Di Narzo is doing much better. He was able to walk the stage at his high school graduation, where he was given an award for his perserverance.

18-year-old Justin Di Narzo was awarded his high school's perseverance award for his battle with colon cancer. (Di Narzo family)

"Seeing him graduate from high school, seeing him go back to hockey, seeing him bringing all these people together and being able to talk about his disease gives a lot of hope," said Dr. Goudie.

He's even struck up friendships with his hockey heroes Carey Price and Cole Caulfield.

"It was really big because they listened. I never thought that would happen -- famous NHL players would be in contact and befriend a little 18-year-old kid," said Di Narzo.

18-year-old Justin Di Narzo, a cancer patient, meets Habs icon Carey Price. (Di Narzo family)

But his fight isn't over: he's scheduled for another major surgery next week to remove the rest of his colon and part of his bladder.

"I'm nervous but I think about what the outcome will be and I work towards it," he said.

Di Narzo's father Dario says his determination has been an inspiration: "He's a warrior, he's a fighter. A lot of people, I''m pretty sure as far as doctors, didn't think he'd be where he is today."

Doctors still don't know why colon cancer is affecting more younger patients. It's a phenomenon that's been observed around the world; according to the American Cancer Society, 20 per cent of 2019 diagnoses were in patients under 54, which is about double the rate in 1995.

"Perhaps it's a change of habits, you know all the stress, the fast food, the diet, there's many, many factors, but we don't understand why. So probably we have to do a study all over the world," said Dr. Asselah.

For Di Narzo, he hopes his story will inspire others and encourage people his age to take symptoms seriously.

The Canadian Cancer Society recommends seeing your doctor if you present these signs and symptoms:

  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • stool that looks narrower than usual
  • feeling like the rectum is not completely empty after a bowel movement
  • bright or very dark red blood in the stool
  • bleeding from the rectum
  • gas, abdominal cramps and feeling bloated
  • pain or discomfort in the rectum
  • a lump in the abdomen or rectum
  • fatigue and weakness
  • anemia, which can cause fatigue and shortness of breath
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • a blockage in the intestine (called a bowel obstruction)
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • enlarged liver
  • jaundice
  • a buildup of fluid in the abdomen (called ascites)
  • pain in the abdomen, back, buttocks or legs
  • breathing problems

"Dont' wait," urged Di Narzo. "There could be serious consequences if you don't get checked right away, as soon as the symptoms start."

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