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Colorectal Cancer in Young Adults

What You Need to Know to Reduce Your Risk
By Fares Hamad, DO

Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States in both men and women, affecting approximately 1 in every 22 men and 1 in 24 women2. In spite of the risk, most people don’t start to think about colorectal cancer until the age of 50, when traditional guidelines recommend all adults should receive their first screening colonoscopy. While you may not need a colonoscopy right now, you should talk with your primary care physician to determine your risk for colorectal and other types of cancers and establish a screening schedule based on your unique personal and family health history.

Establishing a preventive care plan can help you lower your risk of developing colorectal and other cancers in the future. A recent study published by the American Cancer Society (ACS) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) in February of 2019, found that certain cancers, including colorectal cancers, are being diagnosed in young adults more than ever before.1 The study reviewed cancer statistics for several common cancer types over a 10 year period, from 1995 – 2014, and found that colorectal cancer diagnoses are on the rise in individuals under the age of 35, with the steepest increase seen in Millennials. One of the factors that may be contributing to the increase in early-onset cancer cases is being overweight or obese. According to the ACS, carrying excess body weight may be responsible for as much as 8 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States and nearly 7 percent of cancer-related deaths.3 The link between weight and cancer is complex and continues to be studied; however, excess weight may increase your risk of colorectal and other cancers by:

  • Impairing your immune system
  • Causing increased inflammation
  • Affecting certain factors responsible for regulating cell growth
  • Impacting certain hormones

 If the current trend continues, by 2030, colon cancer is expected to increase by 90 percent and rectal cancer could increase by as much as 124 percent in adults under the age of 50.4 Fortunately, colorectal cancer is one of the few preventable cancers, especially if you know your risk, symptoms to watch for and stay up-to-date on cancer screenings. Our board-certified Gastroenterologists share what every young adult should know about colorectal cancer.

Know Your Family History

Nearly one-third of all colorectal cancer cases found in patients under the age of 35 occur in individuals with a family history of colorectal cancer.5 Notify your physician about any relatives who have been diagnosed with cancer along with the age of their diagnosis, if known.

If colorectal cancer runs in your family, your physician may recommend genetic counseling to further evaluate your risk. A genetic counselor will further review your family history and guide you through a risk assessment.

Certain genetic conditions can significantly increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer including Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).

Know the Symptoms

Colorectal cancer can develop at any age regardless of family history or gender, so it’s important to know what symptoms to look for. Colorectal cancer symptoms are often mistaken for less serious conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and can include:

  • Changes with your bowel movements including blood in your stool or stool that is darker in appearance
  • Chronic or unexplained abdominal pain
  • Sudden changes with your weight

Know your Number

A healthy diet, regular exercise and maintaining a Body Mass Index (BMI) score between 18.5 -24.9 can help lower your colorectal cancer risk.

Colorectal and other cancer types are linked to obesity and an inactive lifestyle in young adults, making managing your weight an important part of your preventive care plan.

Aim for about 30 minutes of light or moderate activity five days per week.  Regular exercise not only helps you to maintain a healthy weight, it aids your digestive system and promotes better gut health.

Eat a nutritious, balanced diet. Two-thirds of each meal should consist of fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans or whole grains. Limit the amount of red meat in your diet and incorporate more lean and plant-based protein instead including chicken, fish and eggs.

For guidance on a diet or exercise routine, try a nutrition tracking app on your smart phone or signup for a fitness class with a friend.

Know Your Prevention Plan

Colonoscopies have been proven to be the best way to detect colorectal cancer or pre-cancerous polyps early, when they are most treatable. It is important not to wait until you are experiencing symptoms to think about colorectal and other types of cancer. You should work with your primary care provider now to develop a preventive care plan and cancer screening schedule based on your overall health and individual risk.

Patients considered to be at an average risk for developing colorectal cancer should begin screening with a colonoscopy at the age of 50. Based on your colonoscopy results, your physician will provide you with an ongoing screening schedule, typically until the age of 75. 

If you are considered to be at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, your physician may recommend that you begin screening before the age of 45 and you may need to be screened more frequently.

It’s never too early to talk with your doctor to determine your risk and develop a personalized screening schedule for colorectal and other cancer types. Individuals at an average risk, age 50 and above can schedule a screening colonoscopy, without needing an in-office consultation. Our nurses are available to conduct an over-the-phone assessment and provide you with the information and prep instructions you will need in order to complete your colonoscopy. To schedule your screening colonoscopy, call 630-717-2600.

 References: 

  1. Sung, H., Siegel, R., Rosenberg, P. and Jemal, A. (2019). Emerging cancer trends among young adults in the USA: analysis of a population-based cancer registry. [online] The Lancet Public Health. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(18)30267-6/fulltext [Accessed 6 Mar. 2019].
  2. Cancer.org. (2019). Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer. [online] Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/about/key-statistics.html [Accessed 6 Mar. 2019].
  3. Cancer.org. (2019). Does body weight affect cancer risk?. [online] Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/body-weight-and-cancer-risk/effects.html [Accessed 6 Mar. 2019].
  4. Cancer.org. (2019). Colon Cancer Cases Rising Among Young Adults. [online] Available at: https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/colon-cancer-cases-rising-among-young-adults.html [Accessed 6 Mar. 2019].
  5. Cancer.org. (2019). [online] Available at: https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/colorectal-cancer-facts-and-figures/colorectal-cancer-facts-and-figures-2017-2019.pdf [Accessed 6 Mar. 2019].


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