SAN ANTONIO — There’s an alarming medical trend threatening the lives of young adults.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths each year in the U.S. alone.
An increasing number of those deaths are among young adults.
As part of National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, we’re sharing the story of one of our own, who was recently diagnosed.
He’s a bodybuilder, fraternity member and works with us in a demanding job as a photojournalist.
His name is Atom Barraza.
He balances it all while managing Cerebral palsy on the right side.
“My right bicep, my right calf they’re not as strong as my left side,” Barraza said.
Atom has overcome those challenges, excelling in the news chopper and at the gym.
“Whatever he sets his mind to he’s going to accomplish,” his mother, Georgina Barraza-Dow said.
Things were looking up for the 29-year-old, until he faced his biggest challenge – cancer.
“I still remember that day like it was yesterday," Adam saidd
Discomfort, extreme abdominal pain, and eventually bleeding.
“I went to the restroom and I started bleeding even more,” Atom said. “At that time I said, this isn’t normal. Like, this is weird, I’ve never bled before.”
Colon and rectal surgeon Doctor Randall Rogers discovered dozens of polyps in Atom’s colon, which showed signs of spreading.
Rogers recommended removing the rectum and entire large intestine.
“I didn’t understand it,” Atom recounted. “At first I didn’t understand it I was like remove the large intestine is that possible. Can someone live without one?
“It just, it didn’t feel real at first.”
Atom's grandfather had Crohn's Disease and went through a similar experience, something Atom's father never wanted. "I didn't want my son to experience everything my father experienced," his father Oscar Dow said.
Adam made it through the 8-hour surgery, but life as he knew it would be different.
“It was a new process of going to the restroom,” Atom said.
A colostomy bag, but Adam never complained, at home or at work.
“He was off for a few weeks but he came back with the same passion, the same excitement to work,” said Director of Photography, Lalo Garcia.
All the while, fear was at war with faith.
Any complication would delay the second planned surgery.
Before Adam’s Second Surgery
“I think Atom is one of the strongest person’s I know,” Garcia said. “And I respect him for that.”
Three months later, good news.
Atom healed enough for Dr. Rogers to perform the second surgery.
Even in the operating room, Atom displayed a sign of optimism.
Adam gives us a thumbs up before his second surgery
The surgical team at Metropolitan Methodist Hospital worked methodically to close the opening in Adam’s abdomen, reconnect his intestines so they could eliminate the use of the colostomy.
“Fortunately in his case it was picked up pretty early so hopefully he has a good prognosis,” Dr. Rogers explained.
Atom’s story is an example of the increase doctors are seeing of colorectal cancer among younger adults.
The reasons are largely unknown.
Dr. Rogers says your chances of dying from colorectal cancer are four times greater if you were born in the nineties, than if you were born in the fifties.
“The main thing is to pay attention to what’s going on if you have a symptom by golly be sure to see somebody and be checked out,” Dr. Rogers said.
Atom is sharing his story to get the word out.
“I felt it was very important to let people know especially kids my age and younger,” Adam said.
Early this year, he was anxious about his post-op visit.
But it was a check-up that revealed more good news.
“Ato’s doing very well,” Dr. Rogers said. “He’s ahead of the curve and doing better than most people because of his age. He’s fully healed as far as the tissues go.”
Six months later, Atom is back at it; in the gym and at work.
“I mean, he is just so strong, and so brave,” Barraza-Dow said. “He, he, he’s a fighter.”
The photographer, Adam, at work
One-in-20 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
In Atom’s case, early detection was important.
Common symptoms include: unexplained loss of appetite and weight loss, a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding or blood in your stool.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms could save your life.