Why colon cancer patients are getting younger

Why colon cancer patients are getting younger

In recent weeks, an outpouring of support went out to the family of former University of Michigan college football star Craig Roh who died at age 32 following a battle with colon cancer.

The tragedy brings to light the risk of the disease and how doctors are seeing a rise in colon cancer cases among younger patients. In fact, a study estimated that over the next 10 years, early-onset colon cancer will account for 10% of all colon cancers and up to 25% of rectal cancers.

“This is an enormous burden on society and therefore prevention and early diagnosis becomes imperative,” says Dr. Ravi Prakash, a gastroenterologist at Advocate Health Care. “Early-onset colon cancer is defined as colon cancer before age 50.”

In the past, preventive colonoscopies were recommended for patients starting at age 50, but now it’s recommended starting at age 45. Those with a family history or inherited genetic mutations may need earlier screenings.

“We are not certain why there’s a rapid rise in colon cancer rates in younger populations, but it is speculated that obesity, western diets and alteration in gut microbiome may play a role,” he says.

Colon cancer risk factors

Risk factors of colon cancer can be divided into modifiable and non-modifiable factors. “Modifiable risk factors include obesity, tobacco use, excess alcohol intake and a poor diet,” says Dr. Prakash. “We try to work on the modifiable factors to reduce the chances of developing colon cancer.”

Colon cancer symptoms

Symptoms of colon cancer include rectal bleeding, changes in bowel habits and abdominal pain.

“Don’t assume that it’s a benign symptom because it could be something more,” Dr. Prakash says. “You should talk with your primary care doctor about your concerns. A gastroenterology referral and an evaluation with colonoscopy may be warranted.”

Detecting colon cancer

There’s ongoing work when it comes to identifying early-onset colon cancer even sooner. One obstacle is that diagnosing colon cancer patients between ages 20 and 44 years old can be challenging.

“Physician and patient awareness are most important in this matter,” says Dr. Prakash. “We need to be more open to talking about gastrointestinal issues with family, friends and doctors.”

Colon cancer in younger people can be more aggressive which is why early diagnosis and prevention save lives.

Take our colorectal health assessment to learn more about your estimated lifetime risk.

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  1. Many people will not get a colonoscopy because of the awful prep the night before. Unless there is a better colon prep, people are not going for a colonoscopy. That is just a fact.

  2. Chris (1053 comment) – You can ask your provider about the Suprep bowel kit. You don’t have to drink as much as the GoLYTELY. The symptoms and treatment for colon cancer are a whole lot worse than the prep. That is a fact.

  3. If we could educate our patients to eat light several days ahead, take a stool softener also several days prior (or drink “Smooth Move” tea) the prep is much easier and the results much better. Working in GI we are seeing too many young patients with rectal or colon masses! Good article.

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