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University of Kentucky researcher shares his battle with colon cancer

Published: Jul. 8, 2021 at 4:37 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Kentucky.

Last year when actor Chadwick Boseman died at the age of 43, many had no idea he was battling stage four colon cancer.

Boseman’s death was a wakeup call that colorectal cancer is on the rise in more young people.

Kentucky leads the country in the highest incidence rate for the cancer, but a push for more education on the importance of screenings has helped to try and curb the numbers.

WKYT’s Amber Philpott recently sat down with a young University of Kentucky chemistry doctoral student and researcher who is fighting back against the deadly disease and using his own story to raise awareness.

Inside the labs at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, the goal is to study the brain.

For researcher Yueming “Ronnie” Wu, he spends his time studying ways to diagnose concussions in athletes earlier.

”I like sports and a lot of players or any athletes get hurt all the time, anything I can help,” said Yueming Wu.

For a scientist, Wu was pretty in-tune with what can happen in the human body, that is until he wasn’t sure what was happening in his own.

”Before this I never stayed a day in the hospital,” said Wu.

Memorial Day weekend 2020, the then-27-year-old was planning on celebrating like a lot of people, but his plans changed when he became violently ill.

”Couple of days before I started throwing up and I was constipated, but not too bad. I don’t want to go to the emergency room just for this,” said Wu.

Wu ended up in the emergency room at the University of Kentucky and would soon be in emergency surgery. Thinking he had a bowel obstruction, doctors set out to find what was wrong and surgery would lead to an unexpected find.

”They opened me up and see a blockage and they test it and send to path lab, and they say its cancer,” said Wu. He was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.

His plan of plan of attack started immediately with his doctors UK.

”He was in bad shape,” said Dr. Zhonglin Hao. Wu underwent six months of targeted chemotherapy and then another surgery that included a procedure known as HIPEC.

The procedure removes any visible cancer from the abdomen and then uses a heated chemo wash to kill any remaining cancer cells.

The procedure and its results were something his doctors say he responded to well.

”After the initial treatment, they went back to look at how much disease was left in the abdomen and they could not find it,” said Dr. Hao.

With his age, no family history and what he thought was a healthy lifestyle, Wu feels lucky. But he is actually not alone.

In the last 30 years colorectal cancer has been on the rise in people younger than 50, and in fact, Wu’s doctors say roughly 12% of diagnosed colorectal cancers happen in people under the age of 50.

”Younger people aren’t used to hearing the messages about what are the symptoms and what may increase your risk factors,” said Mindy Rogers, Director of Kentucky Cancer Program-East.

Mindy Rogers with the Kentucky Cancer Program says education and early detection is key. Screening should begin at 45 for those with average risk.

Tests can include a colonoscopy and now at home stool kits are another option for early detection.

”The earlier you find something you have more treatment options, and it is easier to treat overall your chances of surviving go up exponentially,” said Rogers.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer can often be dismissed:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Unplanned weight loss
  • A change in bowel habits
  • Nausea
  • Ongoing fatigue

Risk factors include obesity, lack of physical activity and smoking and Rogers says there is another risk factor to be aware of.

”Knowing your family history will let you know if you have any hereditary conditions you need to be aware of or if you have relatives that had also had colon cancer, your risk is increased,” said Rogers.

You may be considered higher risk and need a screening before the age of 45 if:

  • You or a close relative has had colon polyps or colon cancer
  • You have inflammatory bowel disease or certain hereditary conditions

Ronnie Wu was not someone who even thought about colon cancer, but he is sharing his story now to help educate others.

He is back to working in the lab, a scientist focused on the health of others. As for his own, right now there is no evidence of cancer, and he is grateful.

”I want to enjoy little things in life and do not take things for granted. That is like a big lesson for me,” said Wu.

To learn more about the Kentucky Colon Cancer Screening and Prevention Program click here.

You can also learn more about the program by contacting Kentucky CancerLink, just call 1-877-597-4655.

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