Colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) has been something many people didn’t normally think about until their 50th birthday—when it was recommended that they have their first colonoscopy. However, a new study led by the American Cancer Society and published last month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that rates of colon and rectal cancer are rising in young and middle-aged adults. At the same time, rates of colon cancer are declining for adults 55 and older.
The study found that between the mid-1980s and 2013, colon cancer rates increased about 1 to 2 percent per year for people in their 20s and 30s. Rectal cancer rates climbed even faster in recent decades, at about 3 percent per year for people in their 20s and 30s and 2 percent annually for those ages 40 to 54.
Why are colorectal cancer rates dropping in older people?
The decline in the disease in those over 55 in recent years has been attributed to the rates at which older people are being screened, lead researcher Rebecca Siegle of the American Cancer Society explained in a CBS News interview.
Why are colorectal cancer rates rising in younger people?
Siegle also explained that the study was not able to determine the exact reasons for the rise in colorectal cancer rates in younger people, but noted that the increase coincides with the rise of the obesity epidemic. The researchers believe that the same factors that led to the obesity epidemic, including less healthy eating and more sedentary lifestyles, have contributed to the rise of colorectal cancer in Gen-Xers and Millennials.
10 things to know about colon cancer
Colorectal cancer screening
Colorectal cancer almost always develops from precancerous polyps (abnormal growths) in the colon or rectum. The most common screening test for colorectal cancer is a colonoscopy. The purpose of this screening is to find polyps so that they can be removed before turning into cancer. Screening also helps find colorectal cancer at an early stage, when treatment often leads to a cure.
Colorectal cancer risk factors
There are people who are at increased risk of developing this type of cancer. They include:
- People with a history of polyps, especially if the polyps are large or if there are many of them.
- Those who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
- People with a history of colon cancer in a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child). The risk is even higher if that relative was diagnosed with cancer when they were younger than 45, or if more than one relative is affected.
- People with type 2 diabetes.
- About 5 to 10 percent of people who develop colon cancer have inherited gene defects (mutations) that can cause family cancer syndromes and lead to them getting the disease. The American Cancer Society is a good resource for finding out more about these family syndromes.
- African Americans, for reasons that are not known yet, have the highest colon cancer incidence and mortality rates of all racial groups in the United States.
- Jewish people of Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi Jews) have the highest risk in the world for colon cancer due to several inherited gene mutations.
Symptoms of colorectal cancer
Colorectal cancer sometimes does not cause symptoms, but if it does, it can cause one or more of these:
- a change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days
- a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by having one
- rectal bleeding with bright red blood
- blood in the stool, which may make the stool look dark
- cramping or abdominal pain
- weakness and fatigue
- unintended weight loss
Preventing colorectal cancer
Screening is the number one way to prevent colorectal cancer. Beyond screening, lifestyle plays a huge role in preventing this type of cancer. Things you can do today include:
- Eat well—your diet should be high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains (and low in red and processed meats). Many studies have found a link between red meats (beef, pork and lamb) or processed meats (such as hot dogs, sausage and lunch meats) with an increase in colon cancer risk.
- Move more—regular moderate activity (doing things that make you breathe hard) lowers your risk.
- Drink less—several studies have found a higher risk of colorectal cancer with increased alcohol intake, especially among men. The American Cancer Society recommends that people who drink alcohol limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink a day for women. The recommended limit is lower for women because of their smaller body size and because their bodies tend to break down alcohol more slowly.
- Stop smoking—long-term smoking is linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, as well as many other cancers and health problems.
There are more than one million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States.
This disease is preventable and curable if caught early. With an increasing incidence of colorectal cancer occurring in people younger than 50 it is critical that anyone who experiences symptoms of the disease get screened.