Thanks to advances in treating colon cancer and growing public awareness of the need for preventive screening, the death rate and the rate of occurrence dropped about 3 percent per year from 2003 to 2012.

Regular screening with colonoscopies often allows doctors to find polyps and remove them before they become cancerous, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance. Screenings can uncover colon cancer early, when treatment is most effective.

“Great strides have been made in treatment and side-effect management in the last 10 years,” Dr. Laura Porter, the Colon Cancer Alliance’s medical adviser, writes on the group’s website. Porter notes that when she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003 only four drugs were available; now there are at least nine with several in the pipeline.

Although there are 1 million survivors in the country today, colon cancer is the third most common cancer in America and the second-leading cause of cancer death. Each year 14,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with it, and it kills 50,000 people every year.

While work continues to develop new, personalized treatments, one of the newest areas of research is focused on young people. Most colon cancers are diagnosed in people over 50, but today one in seven cases is in those under 50, reports the Never Too Young Coalition. Scientists are working to determine why and to improve outcomes.

David Etzwiler at age 18, several years prior to his diagnosis

David Etzwiler at age 18, several years prior to his diagnosis

Valerie Etzwiler of Colorado knows all too well that the disease can strike the young. Her brother, David, was 26 when he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

“We were shocked,” says Valerie, a physical therapy assistant born four years after her brother.  

The family had no history of colon cancer, and David, an avid biker, hiker and camper, was lean and athletic.

Extreme pain brought David to the ER in late 2009, and doctors performed emergency surgery for what the family assumed was a burst appendix.

Instead, doctors found a “huge mass,” Valerie recalls, along with other masses, splayed across his abdomen.

David was given two years to live.

Finding cures was on David’s mind as he went through treatments. Even when David knew experimental treatments might not help him, he thought his participation would bring hope to others.

Surgery was followed by chemotherapy and then radiation. Doctors even tried the high-stakes Sugarbaker procedure, a marathon operation involving removing the organs and using a chemo drug.

David was a quiet fighter. He often offered two-word zingers, and he sat with a characteristic smirk during conversations and events that amused him. At one point he fell into a coma. Doctors predicted he would never come out, but the next day they found him awake and on his phone.

David Etzwiler with sister Valerie

David Etzwiler with sister Valerie

After two failed rounds of chemo, David’s cancer had spread to his lungs by December 2011.  

He knew the risks of the experimental drugs and treatments doctors offered, but he said he wanted to advance research and help others, if not himself.  

David would tell people, “‘Be hopeful,’” Valerie says. “‘It’s not about being in complete remission. It’s about slowing it down — that’s the goal,’ he would say. ‘It is about living life day to day because you don’t have control.’”

David died in January 2013 at 29. Ever the competitor, David, the quiet boy who built childhood forts with Valerie, was proud of the fact that he lived a year longer than expected, his sister recalls.

“He loved knowledge,” Valerie says. He was always eager to teach someone new skills — such as how to fight metastasized cancer.

Valerie continues her brother’s quest to educate others, raise funds through Colon Cancer Walks, encourage colonoscopies and carry on the legacy of a determined fighter whose spirit courses through her veins. When she gets married in September, she says, David’s presence will be at the wedding.

In memory of David, Valerie and others who loved him participated in the Denver Undy Run/Walk, which is sponsored by the Colon Cancer Alliance, on June 25.

You can show your support for critical research to end diseases like colon cancer. Sign the petition to join our Discovering Cures community and ask your Member of Congress to support biotechnology innovation.

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