What young adults need to know about colorectal cancer

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center

Colorectal cancer cases are rising in young adults in the United States, however, earlier screenings and lifestyle changes can help stifle the trend.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that from 1988 to 2014, colorectal cancer deaths increased more than 1.6 percent each year in adults aged 30 to 39 and 1.9 percent in adults aged 40 to 49. While the exact reason for the increase in younger adults is not known, Dr. Brian Lim Bello, a colon and rectal surgeon at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, said diet and weight may be the biggest contributing factors.

“The answer is really unclear. We think it’s probably a combination of factors — I think if you look at the population now compared to 15 years ago, the population is more obese. That’s probably the driving factor,” he said.

An unhealthy lifestyle can also contribute to increased colorectal cancer risk. Young adults today grew up eating more processed foods than generations past. Those eating habits compounded with patients who don’t exercise enough can mean trouble for colorectal health, Dr. Bello said.

Genetics can play a role in a patient’s overall colorectal cancer risk, too. Those with a history of colon cancer in their family — especially those with relatives who were diagnosed with it at age 50 or younger — are more likely to be advised to get a colonoscopy, Dr. Bello said.

Young adults and their doctors should watch for potential warning signs of colorectal cancer such as chronic and persistent pain in the abdomen, rectal bleeding, unexplained weight loss, unexplained anemia or a low volume of red blood cells.

“People need to be educated about the signs and symptoms to look for,” Dr. Bello said, adding that those who experience the symptoms should talk to their doctor about getting a colonoscopy to screen for signs of cancer.

It is recommended that Americans get their first colonoscopy at age 50. However, young adults should consider a colonoscopy if they experience symptoms and have a family history of colorectal cancer.

There are measures people can take to reduce their risk of colorectal cancers. Dr. Bello recommends people avoid excess alcohol consumption, avoid fatty and fried foods, quit smoking and eat a high-fiber diet.

For some reason, many people aren’t getting colonoscopies, according to research done by Dr. Bello. About 40 percent of patients across the United States and Washington, D.C. don’t get the appropriate colon cancer screening, he said.

Surveys he helped conduct found out that the number one reason people don’t get a colonoscopy is that “they weren’t educated about it, they didn’t know about it, their primary care physician didn’t tell them about it,” Dr. Bello said. Also, people didn’t seek the procedure because of the fear of the bowel prep ahead of it or they were worried about procedural risks or didn’t like talking about their GI system, he added.

Dr. Bello says colonoscopies should not be overlooked.

“With colon cancer screenings, we are able to find polyps before they turn into cancer,” he said.

If a colonoscopy yields signs of cancer, one option is laparoscopic surgery. With that type of procedure, surgeons can remove part of the colon and fatty tissue surrounding it with three or four small incisions, instead of the sternum-to-pubic-bone size incisions in the past. Patients do a lot better and they tend to recover faster with laparoscopic surgery, Dr. Bello said.

Read more about young adults’ colorectal cancer risk and warning signs and listen to a podcast with Dr. Bello here.

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