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Colon cancer rates in younger adults are rising

Shawn Webb, M.D.
for Henry Ford Health System
The death rate for colorectal cancer among adults ages 20 to 54 has been increasing since the mid-2000s — an alarming trend considering colon cancer is one of the most fatal types.

When people under 50 are diagnosed with colon cancer, it comes as a shock. But equally shocking is the fact that colon cancer rates are rising in younger people. Those born around 1990 are twice as likely to get colon cancer and four times as likely to get rectal cancer than those born in 1950, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). New cases of colon cancer and rectal cancer are occurring at an increasing rate among young and middle-aged adults throughout the U.S. 

In 2020, there will be about 18,000 cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed in people under 50, or about 49 new cases per day, according to the Colon Cancer Coalition. It's reported that one in five colorectal cancer patients are between 20 and 54 years old.

That's why the ACS and other cancer experts now recommend that for those with an average risk (no family history of colon cancer or other risk factors) colonoscopy screenings take place at age 45, rather than the previous recommended age of 50.

The reasons behind the rising rates still aren’t fully understood, but some factors might include obesity, multiple vitamins, and other dietary supplements. Regardless, here’s what younger patients should be aware of to keep themselves cancer-free.

Shawn Webb, M.D.

The facts about young adults and colon cancer

A 2017 study by the ACS found that for adults ages 20 to 39, colon cancer rates increased by one to two percent per year through 2013. In adults 40 to 54, rates increased by 0.5 percent to one percent per year from the mid-1990s through 2013.

What’s more, the death rate for colorectal cancer among adults ages 20 to 54 has been increasing since the mid-2000s — an alarming trend considering colon cancer is one of the most fatal types. (The five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer when it’s diagnosed at an early stage is 90%, however, so it can be very treatable. Currently, there are more than one million colon cancer survivors in the U.S. alone.)

The majority of patients that are being diagnosed in the younger population are at a more advanced stage when cancer is harder to treat. And although colon cancer — the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. — has few obvious symptoms in earlier stages, there are still signs that the condition may be present, including:

  • A change in bowel habits like diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
  • Dark stools, or blood in the stool
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Iron deficiency
  • Abnormal levels of hemoglobin

You can lower your risk of colon cancer

Regardless of your age, it’s possible to lower your risk of colon cancer with a few common health measures. Here are my suggestions:

  • Maintain a healthy diet. Eating foods with lots of fiber (whole grains, broccoli, lentils, black beans, etc.) can help keep bowel movements regular.
  • Drink plenty of water. Water is essential for keeping your colon clean.
  • Exercise regularly. A 2009 study found that the most physically active individuals involved had a 24% lower risk of colon cancer than those who were the least physically active.
  • Get an annual physical.

Most young people only go to a doctor if they’re sick. They don’t go to a doctor when they’re well. However, regular check-ups, especially those that include bloodwork, can allow patients and physicians to detect low iron levels or abnormal levels of hemoglobin — both of which can be signs of colon cancer.

No matter what steps you take to lower your risk, the best things people can do to truly keep colon cancer at bay are to pay attention to any changes in their bodies, trust their senses, and remain vigilant.

To find a doctor at Henry Ford or to make an appointment, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Want more advice from Henry Ford experts? Subscribe today to the Henry Ford LiveWell health and wellness blog to receive weekly emails of our latest tips.    

Dr. Shawn Webb is a colon and rectal surgeon who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center – Lakeside in Sterling Heights.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.
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