What millennials, Gen Xers need to know about colon cancer report

Startling new study shows sharp increase among younger people

Listen up. If you’re in your late 20s, early 30s or even in your fabulous 40s, you’ll want to know what a major new study in a leading medical journal says about your increased risk of developing colon cancer.

According to this new information, over the past 40 years colon and rectal cancer rates have risen dramatically and steadily among millennials and Generation X adults in the United States.

This study, done by the American Cancer Society and published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that someone born in 1990 has twice the risk of developing early colon cancer as someone born in 1950. This same someone has four times the risk of developing early rectal cancer.

“Such striking increases in these types of cancer over four decades would be almost unbelievable had this study not been published in such a credible and respected journal,” said Martin D. Mark, M.D., Norton Gastroenterology Consultants.

Dr. Mark described the findings as “very worrisome.” He said they raise more questions than answers.

“One has to ask, ‘What does this really mean? What has changed over the past 20 to 40 years?’” he said.

While the study did not point to specific causes for its findings, unhealthy lifestyle habits were pegged as likely factors in the increase of colorectal cancers among younger people. Obesity, inactivity, poor eating habits and smoking may all be culprits in the alarming trend.

On a local level, Dr. Mark said his practice has seen an increase in younger people getting colonoscopies. Speaking anecdotally, he indicated most of these tests were done because of symptoms reported by patients. Most tests on younger individuals have been negative for cancer, but in a surprising number of cases large polyps were found and removed.

Most young adults are tested for colon cancer only after symptoms develop. Common symptoms that should never be ignored at any age include rectal bleeding, bloody stool, intestinal cramps, unexplained weight loss and changes in bowel habits that persist more than a few days.

At any age you can do yourself a world of good by following five basic lifestyle guidelines:

  • Eat more fiber, including whole grains, fruits and veggies.
  • Eat more lean protein, including fish, beans and nuts.
  • Eat less fat, sugar, red meat and processed meats.
  • Exercise more, or at least get up regularly and move more.
  • Do not smoke.

Yes, these are the same things experts have recommended for years to help prevent heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. If these doable practices also can help prevent colorectal cancer, it’s hard to see any downside to following them.

Thanks to increased screenings, colorectal cancer is considered very curable if it’s caught early, when polyps can be removed before they become cancerous. Most of the 135,000 annual cases diagnosed in the United States still occur among people over age 55.

Currently, screening is recommended for adults over age 50, or over age 45 for African Americans. Younger adults with higher risk factors, such as a family history or a personal history of gastrointestinal disorders, should look at starting screening before age 50.

At this point, no changes to screening guidelines are being recommended. Dr. Mark said this is something the groups that set these standards will want to assess as new information emerges.

“We’ll want to stay on top of it,” he said.

 


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