Why is Colon Cancer on the Rise in Young Adults?

Young adults don’t typically think of colorectal cancer as something they may experience. Routine screenings usually aren’t recommended until age 45; however, colorectal cancer is on the rise in young adults. It is becoming increasingly important to share any gastrointestinal symptoms and concerns you may be experiencing.

What is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer is cancer in the colon or rectum and is frequently referred to as colon cancer or rectum cancer depending on the origin of the cancer. The colon and rectum make up the large intestine and are part of the gastrointestinal system.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?

Symptoms of colorectal cancer do not typically appear right away and are often found in routine screenings like colonoscopies. Some of the most typical symptoms of colorectal cancer are:

  • A change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few days
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Bloody stool

Other symptoms include frequent weakness and fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, anemia and unexplained weight loss.

How Fast Does Colon Cancer Spread?

According to the American Cancer Society, colon or rectal cancers tend to spread slowly over many years. Polyps, or growths on the inner lining of the colon or rectum, are typically where cancer begins, though not all polyps are cancerous. The removal of polyps early can prevent the spread of cancer.

Cancer that starts in the lining can then grow outward into the wall of the colon or rectum. Once in the wall, cancer may spread into blood vessels or lymph vessels, then into other areas of the body.

What Causes Colon Cancer?

While there is no clear answer to what causes colon cancer, there are risk factors that can increase your chances of developing the disease.

Risk factors include:

  • Family history of the disease
  • Hereditary or genetic syndromes such as Lynch syndrome
  • Being age 50 or older
  • Health conditions like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Obesity
  • Diet rich in red meats or processed foods

Why Is There an Increase in Colon Cancer Diagnoses in Young Adults?

Several recent studies have shown an increase in colorectal cancers in young adults. The American Cancer Society found that the rate of diagnoses in those younger than 55 has doubled since 1995.

While there are not any definitive reasons for the increase, healthcare professionals believe there are certain risk factors that are now more prominent in young adults than they were previously.

The National Cancer Institute suspects the increase could be influenced by factors such as high-fat, low-fiber diets; being overweight or obese; changes in the gut microbiome that can cause inflammation; and a sedentary lifestyle (spending more time sitting than being active). Genetics or a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps may also play a role in some early-onset colorectal cancers.

It’s important for young adults to be aware of changes that could indicate signs of colorectal cancer. The biggest mistake young adults can make is to assume they are not at risk for colon cancer or that symptoms can be ignored. Be especially mindful of changes in bowel movements, unusual stools, rectal bleeding or abdominal pain. Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms or have other concerns.

Colon Cancer Age Statistics

The risk of colon cancer increases with age, and occurrences are much more common after age 50. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the average age for a colon cancer diagnosis is 66 in men and 69 in women. Diagnoses in people under age 55 have increased in recent years; about 20 percent of colorectal cancers are diagnosed in people under the age of 55.

Colon Cancer in Men vs Women

The American Cancer Society found that the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer is 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 26 for women. Excluding skin cancers, it is the third most common type of cancer in both men and women in the United States.

How to Lower the Risk of Colon Cancer

Lifestyle changes are the best ways to lower the risk of colon cancer. These include:

  • Exercising
  • Losing weight
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Reducing consumption of processed foods and red meats
  • Quitting smoking

For those 45 and older, routine colon cancer screenings can also lower the risk of developing cancer.

How to Get Screened for Colon Cancer

If your doctor believes you may have colon cancer, a screening is the best way to check. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults begin routine colon cancer screenings at age 45 to detect any cancers before symptoms appear. The frequency of routine screenings will be determined by your doctor based on your health history, risk factors and previous screening results. Some common screenings are described below; talk to your doctor about which may be right for you.

Colonoscopy

Colonoscopies are the most common way to check for colorectal cancers. A colonoscopy consists of using a flexible, lighted fiber-optic tool inserted in the anus. The gastroenterologist can check the rectum and entire colon and remove anything suspicious for testing.

Sigmoidoscopy

Sigmoidoscopies are similar to colonoscopies. They inspect the rectum and lower colon, while colonoscopies inspect the entire colon.

Stool-based Testing

Fecal testing checks for blood in the stool that can indicate the presence of cancer.

Other screenings include computed tomography colonographies, X-rays, MRIs, PET scans and blood tests.

This risk assessment can help determine if you have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. The results are not an official diagnosis. You should follow recommended screenings and always consult your doctor or a gastrointestinal specialist about your personal and family health history and any symptoms or concerns you may have.

Learn more about Covenant Health’s gastroenterology services, including colon cancer screenings, here.

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