Diagnosis under age 50 is increasing
News of actor Chadwick Boseman’s death at age 43 came with the announcement that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016 and it had progressed to stage 4. The actor, who so nobly depicted Jackie Robinson in “42,” James Brown in “Get On Up,” Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” and T’Challa in “Black Panther,” kept his diagnosis out of the public eye.
Colon cancer falls into a category of cancers known as colorectal cancer. It is any cancer in the colon and rectum and includes bowel cancer, colon cancer or rectal cancer. These cancers are often simply called colon cancer.
That someone so young can have colorectal cancer may seem surprising, but an increasing number of people under 50 are being diagnosed with the disease. Rates of death due to colorectal cancer increased 2% per year from 2011 to 2016 for those under age 50, according a report published by ACS Journals. Rates of colorectal cancer are also higher in Black people.
“Colorectal cancer is the third-leading cancer diagnosis in Kentucky, and the second- leading cause of cancer deaths,” said Michael F. Driscoll, M.D., medical oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute. “What’s alarming is we’re seeing more patients under 50 diagnosed, and it’s not uncommon for people in their late 30s to be diagnosed.”
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Take our online colon cancer risk assessment to learn about your personal risk factors and changes you can make to reduce them. If you believe you are at greater risk, talk to your health care provider about your screening options.
The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends colorectal cancer screening begin at age 50, while the American Cancer Society’s starting age for screening is 45. People with a family history of the disease should get screened starting at 40, or 10 years earlier than the age at which their family member was diagnosed. There are several kinds of screenings, including colonoscopy and stool-based tests. Talk to your primary care provider to determine when you should have your first screening.
Stool-based tests such as Cologuard or fecal immunochemical test (FIT) screen are for patients who do not have symptoms and do not have a significant family history of colorectal cancer. If you do have symptoms or a family history, including a first-degree relative who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer under age 60, colonoscopy is the preferred test.
Unlike some other cancers, colorectal cancer often has no symptoms.
“It’s very important to pay close attention to your body and see a medical provider if you have any changes that could be a sign of colorectal cancer,” Dr. Driscoll said.
Symptoms that may indicate colorectal cancer include:
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in your stool
- Dark or black stool
- Change in bowel habits (including constipation or diarrhea) lasting more than a few days
- Intestinal cramping
- Unexplained weight loss
“Colorectal cancer often is attributed to unhealthy lifestyle choices,” Dr. Driscoll said. “Some simple changes really can reduce your risk.”
- Stop smoking — or don’t start.
- Eat more fiber, including fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
- Eat more lean protein, including fish, beans and nuts.
- Eat less fat, sugar, red meat and processed meats.
- Reduce the amount of alcohol you drink.
- Get more exercise.
- Maintain a healthy weight.