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Why You Should Be Aware of the Rise in Colorectal Cancer Cases Among America’s Youth

March 18, 2019Dr. Drew Chiesa

While it’s true that colorectal cancer rates have dropped in the U.S. since the mid-1980s, new studies have shown more cases popping up among those under the age of 50 – the recommended age for baseline colonoscopy. Jefferson Health gastroenterologist Dr. Drew Chiesa explains the possible reasons behind this shift.

Dr. Chiesa notes that the “overall decrease in colorectal cancer cases has been significant over the past decade, primarily because of early detection and high compliance rates for screening among older adults.” Tests, such as colonoscopies, help detect colorectal cancer sooner, meaning it can be easier to treat. Polyps, which are abnormal growths in the colon, can also be removed during a colonoscopy if they’re pre-cancerous.

During this general decline, the number of cases specifically affecting Gen Xers and Millennials – ages 24 to 53 – has increased by about 1 to 2 percent per year, according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The risk, fortunately, is still low for this age group, just not as low as it used to be. For example, an American Cancer Society study shows that in the early 1990s, cancer rates among those in their early 50s were 50 percent lower than rates of those in their late 50s. Today, the difference is only about 12 percent.

“In addition, these younger patients are more likely to be diagnosed with a later stage of cancer, either because of misdiagnosis or a delayed follow-up of symptoms,” explained Dr. Chiesa. “It’s new for colon or rectal cancers to even be on the radar for this age group.”

 “What’s causing the increase is hard to determine,” continued Dr. Chiesa. “The rise in obesity among American youth may play a part, along with a poor diet, unhealthy lifestyle, or other environmental factors.”

Knowing that younger people can and do get colorectal cancer, Dr. Chiesa reminds them to be well aware of “what they’re putting into your body and how sedentary they are.”

“Do your best to stay physically active, eat a well-balanced diet, know your family history of colon and rectal cancer, and know what symptoms to watch out for,” he says. “Since not everyone will present with symptoms, talk to your doctor if you notice a prolonged change in your bowel habits (such as diarrhea or constipation), rectal bleeding, weight loss and fatigue.”

In recent years, the American Cancer Society lowered its recommended age for colorectal cancer screening from age 50 to age 45, something Dr. Chiesa says “makes sense for those at a higher risk, but not for everybody.”  

Until any new developments are made, physicians should continue to educate young patients about the importance of healthy lifestyle behaviors. As a patient, remember these colorectal cancer signs and symptoms. If you’re particularly concerned due to a strong family history, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor if early screening is right for you.

To learn more about Gastroenterology services available at Jefferson Health in New Jersey, click here