What It's Like Being a Young Person With "Old People Problems"

In October 2014, I tearfully divulged my chronic stomach problems to a gastroenterologist in West L.A. I'd been having alarming issues for a few months, and because my dad had died of pancreatic cancer that spread to his liver eight years earlier, I expressed concern that I was genetically doomed to follow in his footsteps and die before my time.

The doctor said I had to come in for some extensive tests on Halloween and handed me a Beverly Hills surgery center pamphlet and sheet of paper that read, "Do not eat any solids on the day before your colonoscopy."

"Wait a minute, a colonoscopy?" I said.

"That's part of the procedure," he said. "We're performing an endoscopy to look at your throat, plus a colonoscopy to check for polyps and ulcers, given your symptoms."

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I'd just turned 26 over the summer, meaning I essentially had to undergo a colonoscopy 25 years earlier than most people. I'd always associated colonoscopies with parents and people over 50, so hearing that I needed one the following week was horrifying.

In the week leading up to my procedure, older relatives and family friends reached out to send love and provide advice for getting through the day. They were right that the worst part isn't the colonoscopy itself, but rather the 24-hour fasting period on the day prior to the procedure.

I couldn't eat, so I watched a lot of TV, which includes way more images of food than you realize until you haven't consumed anything all day.

On the day of the tests, I wept the moment they injected me with anesthesia medicine, irrationally fearful I wouldn't wake up (natural redheads have a weird relationship with anesthesia). But I can't even remember falling asleep. All I know is that I woke up shivering and was told my situation wasn't as dire as I'd feared: I had gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining, and esophagitis, an inflammation "that may damage tissues of the esophagus," according to the Mayo Clinic. These conditions are manageable, and I was beyond grateful not to have polyps, an ulcer, or, of course, cancer.

Me after waking up from my colonoscopy

Though my throat had more wear and tear than normal for a person my age, the doctor said I would be fine as long as I cut down on certain fatty foods and reduced my alcohol and coffee intake. I knew it wouldn't be easy, given my habits, chronic stress eating, and love of comfort food, but I vowed to take better care of myself and make my late dad proud.

Gastrointestinal issues in young people

It's been a little more than a year since my tests, yet I think about them during all of my meals. Anytime I experience radiating pains throughout my body, or the digestive issues return, I fear that my condition is ultimately going to be the thing that kills me. While it's negative to think that way, it also helps me keep perspective and not assume that I'm healthy and resilient merely because I'm young.

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Stomach issues in particular are more common among young folks than many realize. Purna Kashyap, who researches gastrointestinal issues at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told ATTN: over the phone that the majority of his patients are young people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

"When we do colonoscopies for younger people, that is when they're actually having GI issues," he said. "It's not [always] necessarily that people are looking for cancer, because I think people may relate colonoscopies with cancer, and that's why the younger people feel like, 'Why am I getting a colonoscopy?'"

Last year, George Chang of the MD Anderson Cancer Center led a study that found an increase in the number of young people with colon cancer.

“Particularly in people between ages 20 and 34, we estimate a doubling in incidence rate of colorectal cancer,” Chang told NBC News, adding that he decided to conduct the study after working with many young patients with colon cancer. "My impression is that we have been seeing more young people today than we saw a decade ago. We did our study using population data to confirm if what we were seeing in our own hospital was true for the country as a whole.”

Studying 393,000 patients with colon cancer between 1975 and 2010, the researchers found a decrease in the number of colon cancer cases as a whole, likely thanks to colonoscopy screenings. But rates of colon cancer spiked nearly 2 percent among people aged 20 to 34 over the same time period. This may seem like a small percentage now, but the trend could signal a massive jump in colon cancer rates among this age group as the years progress, the researchers warned. “We’re talking small numbers, but they’re important numbers when we talk about them possibly increasing over time,” Chang said.

Why young people don't talk about their GI issues.

It's unsurprising that many people keep their GI issues to themselves: It's a taboo subject in our culture. Kashyap agreed that this could prevent young people from asking for help and dealing with their health problems.

"I'm not saying people should make this a normal dinnertime conversation, but if they have symptoms, they should be comfortable enough to talk to friends, colleagues, parents, siblings, whoever is willing to listen," he said. "I think people get discouraged because the other person may discount it, because there is this notion or concept that it's all in your head, and people need to get over that. It's not always in your head. When somebody is having symptoms, those are real, and they need to be looked [at]."


Kashyap added that it's important to seek medical assistance early on. "I think what people don't realize is that by the time they actually see the doctor, they might be quite miserable and are past the point where they don't want to talk about it, but it's probably a better idea to reach out to your doctor earlier than later," he said. "A lot of these diseases may in fact be easier to treat early on than when a certain pattern has set in."

Journalist Katie Couric is perhaps the most visible champion of tackling stomach issues. After her husband died of colon cancer in the 1990s, making her a widow at the age of 31, she famously broadcast her own colonoscopy, a move that was credited with driving an increase in colonoscopies among the general public.

A decade later, she filmed the preparation process for her next colonoscopy:

Spreading awareness of GI issues in young people.

Ste Walker, a 24-year-old man from England, recently went viral on Facebook after publishing a post describing his severe struggles with Crohn's disease, an incurable disorder that causes inflammation in the digestive tract. In his post, he said it was important for others not to assume someone is OK and healthy merely because that individual looks fine on the outside.



People are too quick to judge these days, just because I look normal and speak normal, that doesn't mean I don't have a...

Posted by Ste Walker on Sunday, October 25, 2015


Walker has all five types of Crohn's disease, a rare condition that has made him unable to eat or drink for the past two years, he told ATTN: via Facebook Messenger.

"I am sick of people saying [to] me, 'You don't look poorly,' or 'Crohn's isn't that bad,'" he said. "I bumped into someone I know down at the hospital shop, and he said, 'What are you still doing here? You look totally fine,' and that just made me blow my top, because I'd kept it all bottled inside. So I had a rant on [Facebook]. 'Why should disability have a "face"? It shouldn't at all.'"

Walker has appreciated the outpouring of support on social media. He thinks it's important to send the message that young people can be sick, too.

"I want people to just stop and think before they go ahead and judge that young man that has just used a disabled toilet, or that young man laughing and joking walking with a walking stick or using his mobility scooter," he said. "I was afraid to reveal [my condition], but I think the world needed to see it, and the world needed to be taught that I am a person, I have feelings, and they don't know the struggles I go through just to get myself out of bed and dressed fine and out of the front door, the amounts of painkillers I've had to take just so I can move about, or the meals I cook for my family, then sit and watch them eat them while I am not able to."

If you think you might be suffering from GI issues, take a look at this chart ATTN: previously wrote about to see whether your bowel habits are worth seeing a doctor about:

What your poop says about your health