TAMPA, Fla. — At 50, everyone is encouraged to get a colonoscopy to check for colon cancer. The screening has brought down the number of people diagnosed with the disease who are 50 and over. 

What You Need To Know

  • The National Cancer Institute says new cases of colorectal cancer in people under the age of 50 have been rising at an alarming rate over the past several decades

  • Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States among both men and women

  • New cases of early-onset colorectal cancer, while still relatively rare, have been rising since the mid-1990s

  • Alex Mojica started getting symptoms a year and a half before he was diagnosed with colon cancer at 35 years old

But for those 50 and younger, there has been an uptick in deaths from the disease.

Story Southworth works at BayCare's St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa and remembers well when she first met Alex Mojica. 

“I saw a young man that was in a room. It was dark. He was very standoffish. He didn’t know what to expect. He was scared,” said Southworth, a BayCare nurse manager. 

He was scared because Mojica would bleed when he used the restroom. He had pelvic pain, constipation and more worrisome symptoms. 

“Almost like it was giving me a sign, like, 'Buddy, there’s something wrong',” said Mojica, 35.

He had been having these symptoms for more than a year before he went to the doctor. He was told to get a CT scan, which showed a mass in his colon. 

“As soon as I heard the word ‘cancer,’” said Mojica with a sigh. “Because my sister — my older sister — was already battling cancer, you know. She got diagnosed about like six months prior to that. So I kind of already knew it was a bad thing.” 

Mojica’s family lives up north. Facing cancer alone and so young, he inadvertently found a different kind of family to lean on in Tampa. 

“I really felt that, like, I honestly felt like she was an angel wrapping her wings around me, because I didn’t have (anybody), like, I don’t have a lot of support systems,” Mojica said. 

“We often become their friend, their family member, their mentor, because as a surgeon, we are seeing the patients in their most vulnerable state,” said Dr. Elizabeth Myers, colorectal surgeon at BayCare.

The angel was Myers and other medical staff with the BayCare health system. 

Mojica had to go through radiation and chemotherapy and then Myers was able to perform surgery to remove the cancerous mass. 

Mojica has not been her only young patient over the years. In fact, Myers said each year, younger and younger patients are diagnosed with colon cancer. 

The reason why is not completely known, but one problem does see clear. 

“In general, it is a population that isn’t being screened,” Myers said. “One of the most dangerous things about that is these are patients that are being missed, or by the time they are diagnosed, their disease can often be advanced in stage.”

Along with an advanced cancer diagnosis, Mojica had to deal with loss. 

“Before I got surgery, my sister passed away,” said Mojica with tears in his eyes. 

His sister died from esophageal cancer. Her funeral was on a Monday, two days before Mojica’s surgery. He was not able to attend because of that surgery. 

Mojica instead held onto a memory of his sister. 

“She told me, she said, ‘I love you more, and now you stay strong.’ Like, literally, that was her last words to me,” Mojica said. 

With her strength added to his, Mojica continues to get better each day. 

“After all, after this whole journey, I’m proud to say that technically, I’m in remission. You know, surgery worked great, doctor. It all worked out,” Mojica said. “To young people: I’m young, you know, I waited too long. Do not do that. Go at the first symptom.”

For the next five years, Mojica will be checked to make sure his cancer does not return. 

A lot of times, people with colon cancer are asymptomatic. But some signs include rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, pelvic pain and unusual weight loss.