Young Adults See Jump in Colorectal Cancers

In recent decades, colorectal cancers have been steadily declining in older adults.

However, a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has found that colorectal cancers are increasing significantly in adults as young as their 20s and 30s.

About 13,500 new cases of colorectal cancer are expected to be diagnosed in Americans under 50 this year. The fastest increase is in rectal cancers. About 40,000 rectal cancer cases are expected. More than 95,500 cases of colon cancer are forecast.

Between the mid-1980s and 2013, colon cancer increased about 1 to 2 percent per year for young adults in the 20s or 30s. Rates of diagnosis also rose for middle-age adults, but more slowly.

In recent decades, rectal cancer rates climbed even faster. It rose about 3 percent per year for those in their 20s or 30s. Rates were up 2 percent per year for people age 40 to 54.

That means that three in 10 new cases of rectal cancer are now diagnosed in patients younger than 55. That rate is double the proportion in 1990. For the past four decades, rectal cancer rates in people age 55 and older have dropped.

It’s important to note that the incidence of colorectal cancer in young adults, even though on the rise, is still relatively low. Just one in 100,000 people in their 20s will be diagnosed, compared to 50 in 100,000 people in their 60s.

Because these types of cancer are uncommon in young adults, they may be diagnosed later in the development of the disease. Because of a later diagnosis, the cancer may be more difficult to successfully treat.

Answers for Why?

The NCI’s study didn’t explore the reasons for the jump in young adult colorectal cancers. A theory from American Cancer Society researcher Rebecca Siegel, who led the study, is that the spike may be the result of an interaction between the same factors that have contributed to the epidemic of obesity in America. Those factors include unhealthy diets, low fiber consumption and sedentary lifestyles.

What is Colorectal Cancer?

Cancer can occur in any part of the colon. The term colorectal cancer encompasses colon cancer and rectal cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 95,000 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed this year. Nearly 40,000 case of rectal cancer will be diagnosed. About 50,000 people will die of colorectal cancer this year in the U.S.

Most colon cancers start as polyps. These are growths on the lining of the colon. The polyps start out benign, that is non-cancerous. But they can grow and become cancerous over time.

Finding the polyps early in their development, before you notice symptoms, and removing them is a key step to keep cancer from developing.

What Are the Signs of Colorectal Cancer?

Adults of all ages should watch for:

  • A change in the consistency, shape or frequency of bowel movements.
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in stool.
  • Abdominal discomfort such as cramps, bloating, gas or pain.
  • Feeling unable to empty bowels.

How is Colorectal Cancer Diagnosed?

A screening is the first step to check for the possible presence of colon cancer. If the screening is positive, your health care professional will likely recommend a colonoscopy.

We recommend that all adults get their first colorectal cancer screening at age 50. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or a medical condition that puts you at higher risk, get a screening earlier. Your health care professional can suggest an appropriate screening schedule for you.

Whatever your age, if you have questions about colorectal cancer, make an appointment with your health care professional.

If you’ve seen a health care provider about questionable symptoms and still have questions or concerns, seek a second opinion. This step can give you added confidence that you know all your health care options.

Meet the Author

Amy J. Hanna-Salami, MD is a surgeon at Aurora Medical Group Surgical Specialists in Milwaukee, WI. 

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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