This past year a story made the national headlines about the rise in colorectal rates – and deaths – in adults under the age of 50. The news was reported first in February when an American Cancer Society-led research study revealed a sharp rise in colorectal cancer rates in young and middle-aged adults. In August, another study revealed that Americans age 20 to 54 are not only getting colorectal cancer diagnoses earlier, they are dying of it at slightly higher rates than in previous decades.
Typically, these national trends are also observed locally by physicians like Shore Physicians Group general surgeon Dr. David May, and medical oncologist Dr. Julianne Childs, both who treat people with colorectal cancer and other types of cancers. We spoke with them recently to get their take on these scary new statistics and what younger adults can do about it.
Why the Increase?
Both Dr. May and Dr. Childs have noticed an increase in younger adults in our area being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
“One main reason we aren’t finding colorectal cancer in this age group until it’s in the advanced stage is that we physicians simply are simply not looking for it,” said Dr. Childs. “And, people younger than 50 think they are too young to get cancer at their age. It’s not on their radar. Even their primary care doctor may not realize their younger patients can be at risk. This is where education for both our patients and we physicians is important.”
Dr. Childs says it’s also important for patients to be their own advocate.
“Know the signs of colorectal cancer, and when symptoms arise talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Even if you are under the age of 50, if you have a family history of colorectal cancer or you’re exhibiting symptoms, speak with your physician to see if an earlier screening would be appropriate for you.”
What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms of colorectal cancer include:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Blood in the stool
- Change in bowel habits
- Narrow stools
- Excessive gas
- Weight loss
“Often younger people will dismiss these symptoms for months, even years,” says Dr. May. “Many patients will say they assumed the blood in their stool was from a hemorrhoid. While most of the time their symptoms are something much more benign, it’s important to take any symptom seriously.”
What Causes Colorectal Cancer?
“Aside from family history, it’s really hard to say that there is one toxic risk factor. However, obesity, a poor diet and lack of exercise may increase the risk. That’s one of many reasons why caring about your health from a young age is so important – not just for preventing colorectal cancer, but for all cancers,” Dr. May says.
Dr. Childs stressed the possibility that diet could be a factor.
“Many young people are eating more meat and less fiber, which can increase an individual’s risk. If you’re concerned about colorectal cancer, the best thing you can do is start today by eating a diet high in fiber and fresh fruits and vegetables, and reducing your consumption of red and processed meats. If you need help making these dietary changes, especially if colorectal cancer runs in your family, a visit with a registered dietitian can help you make the right choices,” Dr. Childs says.
“And remember: screening colonoscopies should start 10 years earlier in relatives of someone with a diagnosis of colon cancer. For example, if your father had colon cancer at age 45, you should start having screenings at 35.”