In June 2021, Shundra Seay Massey, a 29-year-old married influencer from Atlanta, started seeing a chiropractor for back pain. A licensed and registered dietician, Shundra had always taken care of herself, through diet and exercise, and thought she had just slept wrong or something. What followed was more pain—excruciating this time—in her stomach and then her back again, tests and more tests, and delay. A delay in her diagnosis of colon cancer.

By October 25, Shundra was gone, leaving behind a son who wasn’t even two years old, a loving husband, and scores of family members, friends and followers to mourn the loss of such a vibrant, positive force. She also left behind a mother with a mission.

That mission, says her mother, Rosonja Seay, is to raise awareness about young-onset colorectal cancer, which affects patients under the age of 50. Think Chadwick Boseman, the acclaimed actor who died from colon cancer in 2020 at the age of 43. With current guidelines calling for screening at age 45 (down from 50 just a few years ago), Seay, who lives in Newnan, Georgia, says it is important to realize that waiting that long can have devastating, deadly implications.

“My mission and purpose in life is to let young people know that this is not an old person’s disease,” says Seay, who still runs her influencer daughter’s Instagram account BrownMommyDiary. “Even though the screening age is 45, I feel like that is just so unfair. . . . Young people between the ages of 18 to 35 are at risk but nowhere near the age of screening.”

Colorectal cancer, which starts in the colon or rectum, is the most common of all human cancers, says Dr. Olatunji Alese, associate professor and director of gastrointestinal oncology in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology at the Emory University School of Medicine. Because colorectal cancer often isn’t diagnosed until it has spread or grown, it is best to get screened before you start having any problems.

Symptoms include a change in bowel habits that lasts longer than a few days, a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that isn’t lessened by having one, rectal bleeding with bright red blood, weakness and fatigue, blood in the stool, cramping or abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss. Each year, more than 150,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, and up to 52,000 Americans die of colorectal cancer on a yearly basis, Alese says.

Colorectal cancer also disproportionately affects the African American community, with Blacks in the U.S. being about 20 percent more likely to get the disease, and about 40 percent more likely to die from it than most other ethnic groups, according to the American Cancer Society.

But recent statistics have shown a trend that has alarmed researchers: the portion of diagnoses of this type of cancer among adults younger than 55 in the U.S. increased to 20 percent in 2019—up from 11 percent in 1995. Even as overall colorectal cancer death rates fell by nearly 60 percent between 1970 and 2020—the result, studies show, of increased screenings—death rates have climbed among people younger than 50.

Without intervention, by 2040, colorectal cancer will be the leading cause of death in adults aged 20 to 49. Moreover, by 2030, colon cancer cases are projected to increase by 90 percent in patients under age 35, and rectal cancer cases are expected to rise by 124 percent in that age group. For both African Americans and young people, diagnosis usually comes once the cancer has reached an advanced stage and is more difficult to treat.

Alese says that although the screening age has been lowered, the guidelines are still missing a good number of patients, especially minority patients. It will take a sustained community effort to make change. “I have seen way too many young African Americans with stage four cancer which was completely preventable,” Alese says. “It’s going to take everything possible. It’s going to take a lot of education, community engagement, patient advocacy to actually attract a lot of attention to this issue.”

Seay believes that if she knew her history of colonic polyp removal and signs and symptoms like back pain and abdominal pain could be cause for screening, it may have saved her daughter’s life. Eddie Lee Massey III would still have a wife and Eddie IV’s mom would still be here, reveling in her role as “Boy Mama.”

“I remember saying to Shundra when I was recovering, ‘You and your sister probably need to get screened starting around the age of 40.’ Because, again, we didn’t know,” Seay says. “No one ever said to us because you had to have this procedure done, your children probably need to be screened early.”

While Shundra “fought with everything in her” and remained hopeful until the very end because of her and her family’s strong Christian faith, Seay says the fight is hers now. She has started a petition to change the age for colonoscopy screenings.

“For young people, don’t be afraid,” Seay says. “At least talk to your doctor. Even if you don’t get screened, start a conversation. And if you see some changes, make sure you go to the doctor. Don’t ignore them. Don’t think, ‘I’m 25 and this can’t happen to me.’ Shundra was 29 years old when she was diagnosed. She was 29 years old.”