Young people at risk for colon and rectal cancer

Colorectal cancer screening is saving lives. According to a 2014 study released by the Yale Cancer Center, widespread screening has resulted in an estimated 550,000 fewer cases of colorectal cancer over the past three decades. That’s more than a half-million people who have avoided hearing the devastating diagnosis: “You have cancer.”

That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news comes from a more recent study issued by researchers from the American Cancer Society, reporting in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. That study, which reviewed data from colorectal cancer cases over a 40-year period, found that a person born in 1990 has twice the risk of early colon cancer and quadruple the risk of early rectal cancer than a person born in 1950. That is a significant and alarmingly high increase. You may have seen these findings in a USA Today article shared by the Knoxville News Sentinel; click here to read the story online.

In short, colon and rectal cancers are becoming a bigger threat to Gen X and Millennials.

Researchers are not certain of the reasons behind the sharp rise, but believe it is likely due to increased obesity rates, poor diets and inactivity. Whatever the reason, it is sobering news. In 2017, there will be an estimated 100,000 new cases of colorectal cancer and 40,000 cases of rectal cancer. Sadly, more of those diagnoses will be younger people.

While there is no guaranteed way to avoid contracting colorectal cancer, there are ways to minimize your risk of contracting the cancer that is the third-leading cause of death in the United States:

  • Don’t smoke. Smokers have an 18% higher risk of colorectal cancer. Smoking also is linked to lung and other cancers as well as heart disease.
  • Get regular exercise. Individuals who maintain a regular exercise routine are 25% less likely to contract colorectal cancer.
  • Avoid red and processed meats. These unhealthy meats are linked to colorectal cancer.
  • Eat plenty of fiber. High-fiber foods improve bowel function and may help reduce your risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Practice moderation when drinking alcohol. Heavy alcohol use appears to be linked to an increased risk, especially in men.
  • Lose weight if needed. Obesity, particularly belly fat, is a known risk factor for colorectal cancer. A 2014 study found a 10% increase in risk for colon cancer for every five-point increase in body mass index.
  • Know your family history. You need to be especially vigilant with screenings if someone in your family has had a diagnosis of colorectal cancer or a history of precancerous polyps.
  • Watch for symptoms. Common symptoms include:
    • Blood in your stools or dark stools
    • Rectal bleeding
    • Narrower than normal stools (thin like a pencil)
    • Change in bowel habit that lasts for more than a few days (diarrhea, constipation)
    • Unexplained abdominal pain or cramping
    • Anemia
    • Unintended weight loss
    • Feeling that you need to have a bowel movement even after you’ve already had one
    • Weakness and fatigue
  • Get your screening. Colonoscopies are the single best mode of prevention. If you are 50 or older and have not yet had a colonoscopy, schedule yours now. If you’re younger than 50, talk to your physician about scheduling a colonoscopy if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above or have a family history of colorectal cancer.

If you have risk factors or family history, or especially if you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s never too early to talk to a gastroenterologist. Make an appointment today.