Colon Cancer Rates Are Rising In Young People

Today’s troubling trend: The rates of colon rectal cancers are rising in young people, even as they decline in older folks, reveals a new study from the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas.  

Researchers found that colorectal cancer incidence dropped overall by just under 1 percent each year from 1975 to 2010. But when looking at people 20 to 49 years old, the rate actually increased, especially in the youngest age group. During that time, the rate for 20- to 34-year-olds grew by nearly 2 percent annually.

That might not sound like a lot, but the bigger problem is the pattern we’re on.  Using these trends, the researchers estimated that by 2030, rates of colon cancer could increase by 90 percent for people ages 20 to 34, while rectal cancers could spike by 124 percent. 

So what’s going on in our guts? It’s likely that a combination of higher levels of obesity, lower levels of physical activity, and a diet with plenty of processed meats”and not enough fruits and vegetables”can leave you susceptible, says study author George Chang, M.D.

What’s more, younger patients are more likely than older people to be diagnosed when their cancer is at a more advanced stage. After all, colonoscopy screenings”the gold standard for colon cancer detection”are only recommended as a preventive measure for people at average risk starting at age 50.

And that’s important, because not only can a colonoscopy spot early cancer before it begins causing symptoms, but the procedure can also pick up precursor lesions called polyps before they even become cancerous, says Dr. Chang.

Even when guys do notice symptoms like blood in the stool, a change in bowel habits, or abdominal pain, they might miss out on a full clinical workup. That’s because doctors are more likely to attribute the problems to more common and less serious things like hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. As a result, younger people can sometimes wait years for a cancer diagnosis.

So if those symptoms pop up, don’t brush them off”and don’t let your physician do so, either. Ask about getting a colonoscopy, or even the just-approved, at-home stool test called Cologuard.  And let him know if you have a family history of colon rectal cancers, since that raises your risk.

If you don’t have symptoms or a family history and you’re under 50, you currently don’t meet the recommended guidelines for a colonoscopy. Yet the study raises important questions about whether current screening guidelines are enough. 

While it didn’t look at screening policy, the study suggests that more research is needed to determine if the recommendations should be changed, says Dr. Chang.

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