Colorectal cancer has traditionally been thought of as something that affects older people. But this type of cancer is getting more common among younger adults. Since 1994, there has been a 51% increase in colorectal cancer diagnoses in people under the age of 50.
While colorectal cancer treatments have really come a long way over the past decade, early diagnosis makes it much easier to treat successfully. But people under 50 aren’t usually looking for colorectal symptoms and don’t go through regular screening as they will when they get older.
It’s important to know what colorectal cancer symptoms are, and what to do if you notice something out of the ordinary.
Colorectal Cancer Explained
Cancer of the colon or rectum is referred to as colorectal cancer. It affects both men and women and is actually the third most common cancer type in the U.S.1 Colorectal cancer usually starts as a small growth in the lining of the rectum or colon. These small growths (polyps) are not always cancerous. If cancer develops from a polyp it can spread without a lot of symptoms. It usually starts out as a tumor in the colon or rectum and could spread further if not detected and treated.
Typical Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer
- Bloody stools
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Unexpected weight loss
- Pain or cramping in the lower stomach that doesn’t pass after having a bowel movement
- Feeling weak or overly tired for no particular reason
- Skinny/thin feces
- Ongoing changes in usual bowel movements, such as consistent constipation or diarrhea
Some of these are also symptoms of non-cancerous bowel conditions. However, it’s best to talk to your doctor, if you notice any of these.
Why Colorectal Cancer Is Growing More Common Among Young People
The American Cancer Society says that people born around 1990 compared to those born in the 1950s are doubly at risk for colon cancer. And, they are four times more at risk of rectal cancer.2
The specific reason for such a jump in colorectal cancer in younger adults is not yet known. There can be a hereditary connection. In a hospital study, a third of patients diagnosed under age 35 had a family history of the disease.3 Some researchers believe a few other things could be to blame, such as:
- Diets containing more processed foods
- Lack of exercise
- Higher obesity rates
The instance of younger people being overweight, less active, and not eating healthy foods is on the rise. Other clues are also starting to show up that may lead cancer researchers to better understand why colorectal cancer appears in younger people more often. For instance, cancer in young adults is more often found in the rectum or the left-side lining of the colon.
Screening and Colorectal Cancer Risk Reduction
You may not be able to prevent colorectal cancer, but making some changes may lower your risks. The American Cancer Society gives these tips to lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer:
- Exercise on a regular basis
- Try to keep your weight in the normal range
- Avoid smoking
- Balance your diet with fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Consume less processed meats and red meats
- Drink only in moderation (2 drinks daily for men and 1 drink for women)
Getting screened for colorectal cancer is also important to lower your risk. These screenings should start at the age of 45 for most people. But your doctor may want to get you screened earlier if you are at higher risk. Younger adults with a family history may also consider genetic testing for colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer screening allows cancer to be spotted early. Your doctor will recommend the screening they feel is best for you. For many people a colonoscopy is performed periodically. This allows the doctor to look for precancerous polyps that can be taken out before cancer develops.
Talk to a Doctor About Symptoms and Risks of Colorectal Cancer
If you suspect you are at risk of colorectal cancer or have symptoms, talk to your doctor. Obtaining proper screening and diagnosis early is important. If you receive a colon or rectal cancer diagnosis, you will be referred to a cancer specialist called an oncologist who will do further tests and create a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Early detection is the key to successful treatment!
About the author: Nisha Jacobs, MD, is an oncologist and hematologist at Minnesota Oncology’s Coon Rapids location. She has a special interest in gastrointestinal malignancies, breast cancer, prostate and renal cell carcinoma, lung malignancies, and benign and malignant hematology. Dr. Jacobs has been named repeatedly to the Minnesota Monthly Top Doctors for Women and Best Doctors lists.