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Colorectal Cancer is Rising Rapidly Among Young Adults

Published in Family Medicine, Cancer Care, Gastroenterology, For the Health of It Author: Valery Hoover,APRN,CNP

Colorectal cancer is often thought of as an “old person’s” disease. But since the 1990s, the rate of colorectal cancer has more than doubled among adults younger than 50 — and more younger people are dying from the disease.

Colorectal cancer begins in the colon or rectum; both are parts of the large intestine. It often begins as a growth called a polyp. Finding and removing polyps can prevent colorectal cancer.

It’s important that younger adults are aware of the early warning signs of colon cancer. People should get used to looking at their stool and noticing changes.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include:
• Changes in bowel habits
• Blood or changes in the appearance of bowel movements
• Pain and Bloating
• Unexplained weight loss
• Vomiting
• Fatigue

Causes of Colorectal Cancer in Young Adults

Diet: There’s mounting evidence linking an unhealthy diet — in particular, one high in processed meat and fat, and low in fruits and vegetables — to early-onset colorectal cancer. Unhealthy diets have become more common in past decades, and the number of children and adults who are overweight or obese continues to climb. Case Comprehensive Cancer Center data found that half of younger adults with colorectal cancer were overweight and 17% were obese.

Gut: Gut bacteria are affected by the food and chemicals we eat, drink and breathe. Studies have shown that diet, obesity, exercise and some drugs (such as antibiotics) can all change the number and types of bacteria in our guts. Unhealthy diets and gut bacteria also can lead to inflammation — the body’s reaction to injury, disease or irritation. In one study of mice, a high-fat diet triggered gut inflammation and accelerated the growth of tumors in the intestines.

Inflammation: Scientists also are examining factors in the environment as potential causes of early-onset colorectal cancer. Such factors include things like air and water pollution, chemicals in soil and food and pesticide use.

Risk factors for colorectal cancer include:
• Older age
• Smoking
• Drinking too much alcohol
• Obesity
• Poor diet (such as eating too little fiber and too much red/processed meat)
• Physical inactivity
• Personal or family history of colorectal cancer
• Personal history of certain types of polyps or chronic disease such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and diabetes

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that those at average risk of colon cancer start regular screening at 45. People can choose from among several types of tests, including stool-based tests, colonoscopy, CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy. People with an increased risk may need to start screening before age 45. Learn more by reading the ACS guidelines for colorectal cancer screening.

If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or are age 45 or older, talk to your doctor about screening. For answers to your questions about colorectal cancer, visit or call 1-800-4-CANCER.