Why are colon cancer rates rising among millennials?

July 25, 2017 Providence Health Team

Studies suggest that colon cancer rates are increasing among young adults

Although colon cancer rates have decreased since the mid-1980’s, reported cases have risen sharply among young adults. The reason for the shift? According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of colorectal cancer increases with each generation possibly because of an unhealthy diet and a lack of physical activity. We know that obesity can cause the body to produce more insulin, but what is its connection to colon cancer? Studies suggest that high levels of insulin can cause cells to lose control of their DNA regulatory genes, which is thought to specifically promote cancer in colon cells.

Is there another reason for the increase in colon cancer rates, besides diet and exercise?

Dr. Anton Bilchik, professor of surgery and director of the gastrointestinal research program at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center, deals with many cases of colorectal cancer and attributes the rising cancer rates to an increase in obesity and lack of physical exercise. “Another reason we see such an increase in colon cancer rates may be related to people getting colonoscopies at an earlier age. They are identifying cancer earlier than others did in the past and are able to get treatment much sooner.” Dr. Bilchik goes on to explain, “The standard national recommendation is to get screened at age 50. However, if you have a strong family history of colon cancer, it’s recommended to get screened 10 years before your family member was diagnosed.”

On the other hand, the fact that some people don’t have easy access greatly contributes to the rising rates. "There is still a wide disparity in our country relating to access to screenings. We've got two issues. The first is a rapid increase of millennials with colon cancer and the second is the adverse outcome in the underserved population, meaning people living in certain areas don’t have access to screening or cancer prevention,” says Dr. Bilchik.

To make screenings more accessible to more people, there are exciting new tests in the works specifically targeting at-risk colon cancer patients. Besides the colonoscopy, patients can send DNA kits containing stool samples to be tested for cancer. "Although this is more convenient and gives those burdened by financial issues an opportunity to get screened, it does sometimes increase anxiety due to the wait. But, again, it is less invasive and more accessible to everyone than a colonoscopy,” explains Dr. Bilchik.

If you have a close relative who has had colon cancer in the past, you should consider participating in regular screenings and seek the advice of a medical professional. For those who might be at-risk and want to be proactive, Dr. Bilchik offers some words of advice:

“It’s hard to imagine, but 70 percent of colon cancer occurrences can be avoided with changes in diet and lifestyle. This should start at an early age. A balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables and fiber is important. That alone has been proven to reduce cancer risk by 45 to 50 percent.”

“Another stimulator of colon cancer is too much red meat consumption, excessive drinking and smoking. A prudent, balanced diet with small amount of red meat, refined carbs, exercise and a better lifestyle can reduce risk by 50 to 70 percent, and regular screenings will only lower the risk even more.”

As a cancer surgeon, Dr. Bilchik’s favorite aspect of his work is discovering innovative ways of taking care of the whole patient, not just the disease. Patients who are predisposed can do so much for themselves and others by heeding the above advice and educating themselves on their risk of colon cancer and preventative measures. For more information on colon cancer and your risk factor, please contact a health care provider in your area.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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