Most of us associate colon cancer and rectal cancer with older adults. That’s why results of a recent study by the American Cancer Society that found that the rate of new cases of colon and rectal cancer are increasing at a rapid rate among young and middle-aged adults in the U.S., is eye opening, says Richard Greenberg, MD, Division Chair of Colorectal Surgery for Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. Based on the study, once age is taken into account, people born in 1990 have twice the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer compared to people born around 1950. The study was published February 28 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men and the third leading cause of cancer deaths in women. In 2017, there will be 95,520 new cases of colon cancer and 39,910 new cases of rectal cancer. Both cancers will result in an estimated 50,260 deaths. The risk for colon and rectal cancer has been increasing for every generation, with the highest increases among people in their 20s.
Dr. Greenberg weighs in about this study and offers information on how people of all ages can be proactive about their health and help prevent these diseases.
Know the Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits, feeling of fullness or urgency in the rectum, abdominal pain, abdominal bloating, or unexplained weight loss.
It’s important that these symptoms not be discounted in young adults, says Dr. Greenberg (right). Symptoms should not be attributed to hemorrhoids until the person is thoroughly evaluated, which may include colonoscopy. The challenge with younger people is their disbelief and denial that they could have cancer coupled with thinking that they are immortal. This mindset can cause long delays in people getting diagnosed and treated. In fact, according to the study, people younger than 55 are 58 percent more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage disease than older people, due to a delay in diagnosis and treatment.
Colonoscopy is the test that screens for colon cancer. Dr. Greenberg says colonoscopy saves lives, pure and simple. The test is done with sedation and takes less than 30 minutes. When colon cancer is found early, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent.
The American Cancer Society currently recommends screening start at age 50 for most people, with screening starting at a younger age for those with a family history of colon or rectal cancer.
The guidelines also suggest that African Americans begin screening at age 45. Dr. Greenberg says that at this time there is insufficient evidence to suggest that general population screening start at an earlier age. Even though a rise in the number of colorectal cancers in young adults is rising, the overall incidence is still quite low.
Know the Risk Factors
A family history of colorectal cancer or polyps (growths on the inner lining of the colon; most are noncancerous but some may become cancerous), a family history of other malignancies affecting multiple family members, inflammatory bowel disease, or a personal history of other cancer.
Risk may be lowered by a healthy diet and lifestyle. This includes not smoking, limiting alcohol use, eating high-fiber foods, avoiding excessive amounts of animal fat and other processed foods. A healthy weight and physical activity may also help reduce risk.