More People are Developing Colorectal Cancer Younger. Why?

By Dr. Said Nabhan

It can take a harmless piece of intestinal tissue as long as 10 years to grow into a life-threatening form of cancer. Yet for a surprising number of people in their 40s, such growths (or polyps) are making this transformation.

Colorectal cancer, a disease of the colon or rectum, is expected to be diagnosed in 153,000 people in 2023, making it the fourth most-diagnosed of cancers, following breast, lung, and prostate cancers. In Greater Cincinnati, colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in Hamilton and Clermont counties.

And in recent years, more of the people being diagnosed are younger than traditionally expected – in their 40s.

This is why both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society have lowered the recommended age for routine colorectal cancer screenings to 45 from 50 – and possibly even younger if you have family history or intestinal conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.

A Cancer That Can Be Nipped in the Bud

Unlike most cancers, colon cancer is highly preventable, thanks to screenings that remove out polyps before they potentially become malignant (cancerous). The most reliable screening is a colonoscopy, which we consider the gold standard. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month so we want to share as much information as we can about this preventable disease.

Here’s why colonoscopies work so well: During a colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist views the patient’s intestines using a narrow scope, equipped with a camera and light. If the camera reveals an irregularity, such as a polyp, the physician removes it right then so it can be tested. This is the critical preventive step of a colonoscopy, which no other screening provides.

Yet many people put off getting colonoscopies because of misconceptions about the procedure, which is painless, performed under anesthesia, and covered by nearly all health insurance policies. Specifically, people dread the preparation, which requires fasting and cleansing. But in recent years, the prep has become considerably more comfortable, thanks in part to gentler, better-tasting cleansing formulas.

Why Millennials Should Start Thinking About a Screening

Researchers first provided strong evidence of rising colorectal cancer cases among younger people in 2017. That’s when the American Cancer Society reported in the Journal of National Cancer Institute that people born in the year 1990 (then 37-year-olds) had double the risk of colon cancer, and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer, as those born around 1950.

When cancer strikes a younger person, the ramifications can be staggering. The treatments can disrupt careers and child rearing, and younger people tend to have smaller financial reserves to cover the cost. This may be why surgeons at Yale Medicine advise even college students to talk to their doctors if they experience suspicious symptoms, including sudden changes in bowel movements and blood in the stool.

Researchers are unsure of why colon cancer is developing among younger patients, but they do know the contributing factors. A sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, smoking, heavy alcohol use, and low-fiber diets that are high in fats and processed meats have been associated with the disease.

Don’t Ignore These Ageless Symptoms

One regrettable finding of the American Cancer Society’s research is that many younger patients develop late-stage colon cancer because they just endure the symptoms until the discomfort becomes severe. As a result, people younger than 55 were 58% more likely than those older to be diagnosed with the disease in its late stages, when the five-year survival rate can drop to 14%.

Anyone, at any age, who experiences the following symptoms should consult a doctor without delay:

  • A consistent change in bowel activity, including diarrhea, constipation, or changes in the shape or consistency of the stool.
  • Rectal bleeding and/or blood in the stool (dark stools).
  • Belly discomfort, such as cramping and gas.
  • Weakness and fatigue.
  • Unintended weight loss.
  • A feeling that the bowel isn’t completely empty, even after going to the bathroom.

Reduce Your Cases: Get Screened Sooner

If you or someone you care about is approaching a 45th birthday, it may be time to ask about colon cancer prevention with a doctor. Those who have a family history of colon cancer or experience the symptoms listed above should ask their doctor about it sooner.

After all, one day of preparation and a 15-minute procedure are far less disruptive than cancer treatment.

You can learn more about the risks of colon cancer in the Greater Cincinnati region, the latest advancements in colonoscopies, and request an appointment at Cincinnati GI, here.