Most people tend to think of colon and rectal cancers as diseases that affect older people—after all, screenings aren’t recommended until age 50 and in the past young people generally weren’t diagnosed with the disease in significant numbers. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case anymore.
A new study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute states that while colorectal cancer rates have been declining among people 55 and older, they’ve been increasing for those who are younger. In fact, someone who is 27 years old today has double the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer compared to someone who was 27 years old in 1977.
“It’s a quandary—that decrease in colorectal cancer rates for older people is attributed to the screening guidelines. But because they focus on people in their later years, younger people don’t get screened and there is a greater chance the cancer won’t be discovered until it’s advanced and treatment is more difficult,” says Houssam Al-Kharrat, MD, a gastroenterologist at Covenant Health Partners in Lubbock. “That is a shame, because catching cancer early can make a huge difference in the outcome, especially with colon cancer, which grows slowly. Until screening recommendations are revised, it would be wise for young people to know more about colorectal cancer--and not just know about it, but seek medical attention if they suspect something is wrong”
The Risk Factors
Contributing factors such as age and a family history of colorectal cancer can’t be controlled, but there are others that can—and should—be managed from a young age.
“A poor diet is perhaps one of the worst things for colorectal health,” Dr. Al-Kharrat says. “Recent research indicates that certain foods may lead to a higher risk of colon or rectal cancers if consumed often. That includes red meat, which has saturated fat, and cold cuts or processed meats, because of chemical compounds such as nitrites that may pose a risk.”
Instead, Dr. Al-Kharrat recommends a diet that emphasizes whole foods. “Fruits and vegetables have a wealth of nutrients that contribute to good health, and many of them also are rich in fiber, which is beneficial for the colon,” Dr. Al-Kharrat says. “Pears, sweet potatoes, peas and leafy green vegetables are all good choices. Beans such as kidney and pinto also are fiber sources.”
Obesity is another risk factor, so in tandem with a healthy diet, people should keep moving. “Physical fitness not only helps maintain a normal weight, it has also been found to cut colorectal cancer risk on its own, as sedentary people have an increased risk for the disease,” Dr. Al-Kharrat says. “The American Cancer Society recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes if workouts are more intense.”
Dr. Al-Kharrat also urges people to cut out cigarettes and cut back on alcohol—regular smokers and drinkers may be more susceptible to these kinds of cancers.
“Because younger people usually aren’t screened for colorectal cancer, unless they have a family history of the disease or an inflammatory condition such as Crohn’s disease, they should be aware of the warning signs and promptly seek medical attention,” Dr. Al-Kharrat says. Among them:
- Bleeding when passing stools
- Constipation, diarrhea or any other abnormality in bowel movements
- Stomach pain that doesn’t go away
- Weight loss
“Colon health can definitely be affected by lifestyle choices people make, and people shouldn’t put off developing good habits—they could have an immediate impact on colorectal cancer risk,” Dr. Al-Kharrat says.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.