On Your Health

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Colon Cancer on the Rise in Younger People

29 March 2018

If you’ve been reading or watching health news lately, chances are, you’ve seen a wave of news stories about cancer diagnoses on the rise in younger generations. Recently, more people in their 20s and 30s are diagnosed with colon cancer than ever before.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. We spoke with Carrie Guerts, M.S., APRN, CNP, a board-certified nurse practitioner. She sees patients daily who are dealing with intestinal and bowel issues, as well as cancers of the colon, rectum and anus.

Why are colon cancer diagnoses increasing in younger generations?

Colorectal cancer rates were actually on the decline for many years. However, last year the American Cancer Society released results from a recent study showing rates for this type of cancer have been steadily increasing with each generation in people born after 1950.

According to The New York Times, which wrote about the study, "It is the upward trend that is worrisome: The risk of colon cancer for individuals who were born in 1990 was five per million people in that birth group, up from three per million at the same stage of life for those born in 1950." At this time, scientists and medical experts aren’t exactly sure of the specific culprit.

“My guess is that it’s probably environmental,” Guerts says. Only about five percent of colon cancers are hereditary, which means other cases are sporadic, lifestyle-related or related to an environmental factor.

“Our agricultural practices have changed so much over the past several decades. We’re exposed to a lot more pollutants in the air, and we’re constantly exposed to carcinogens as we go about our day,” Guerts says.

Fiber intake, or lack thereof, could also play a role. “The typical American diet is very low in fiber, which means food takes longer to pass through our system. That slow transit time of food in the colon exposes us to more risks,” Guerts explains.

Earlier colon cancer diagnoses in Oklahoma

The rise in younger generation cancer cases is evident at the local level as well. At the INTEGRIS Colon and Rectal Surgery Clinic in Oklahoma City, Guerts sees patients much younger than a typical colon cancer case.

“We have quite a few in their 30s, a handful in their 20s, and several in their 40s getting diagnosed with these types of cancer. As the current guidelines stand, with screening recommendations starting at 50, they would’ve been missed if they hadn’t paid close attention to their symptoms and hadn’t come in to get checked out,” she says.

What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

“Patients typically come to our clinic for issues with blood in the stool. Usually they’ve tried over-the-counter and topical hemorrhoid treatments, but are still having problems,” Guerts says. “Hemorrhoids don’t cause obstructive symptoms, so any new onset of constipation in people who don’t have chronic constipation should be watched.”

Signs of a potentially dangerous colon problem include:

  • Significant changes in size or shape of stool
  • Blood in the stool
  • Severe and/or long-lasting constipation

Know your risk level and symptoms

Obesity, past history of abdominal radiation or a past kidney transplant all increase one’s risk for colon cancer. Diabetes, smoking and alcohol use, as well as diets high in red and processed meat, are also important risk factors. Individuals with the following risk factors should be especially aware:

  • Family history of multiple colon polyps or colorectal cancer (especially in first-degree relatives)
  • Personal history of precancerous (adenomatous) polyps
  • Current diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis)

African-Americans are also generally more at risk for colon cancer, as is anybody over the age of 50.

Lower your risk and get screened if necessary

The CDC currently recommends colonoscopies every 10 years, starting at age 50, among other regular screenings. However, those with symptoms and risk factors do not have to wait to get tested. People with risk factors for colon cancer should be screened by age 40, and those with a first-degree relative who’s had colon cancer should be screened 10 years before the age their relative was diagnosed.

“There isn’t enough data at this point to support changing the recommended screening age. Most colon cancers are slow growing, so if patients are astute to their own risks and symptoms, that can help in catching any issues earlier on. If they are having colorectal issues that can’t be explained by hemorrhoids, they need to have a colonoscopy,” Guerts says.

Guerts is confident that current guidelines are still practical for those with no risks or symptoms. “The CDC will continually watch these trends and if the data suggests earlier screenings across the board would be worthwhile, the age will be lowered.”

Lifestyle changes can help lower your risk for colorectal cancer. “Regular physical activity and eating a high fiber diet, especially fruits and veggies, have been shown to prevent colon and rectal cancers,” Guerts says.

If you’re concerned about your risk for colorectal cancer, get in touch with an expert at the INTEGRIS Colon and Rectal Clinic today.