Why Are More Young Adults Getting Colon Cancer?

An otherwise active, healthy 39-year-old, Marisa Peters was a mother of three boys and still nursing her 16-month-old when she was initially diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer.

“Treatment started very quickly with six rounds of chemo, 28 days of radiation with chemo morning and night and rectal reconstruction surgery. Then there was more chemo and more surgery,” recalls Peters, a wellness advocate, women’s health thought leader and founder of BE SEEN, a movement to take a pledge to encourage colorectal cancer screenings.

With colon cancer in young adults on the rise, Peters’s story is becoming more commonplace. The American Cancer Society reports that 1 in 5 colorectal cancer diagnoses are of individuals under 55 years old, a rate that has doubled since 1995. By 2030, colorectal cancer could be considered the deadliest cancer in those between 20 and 49 years old, according to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.

David Thau, a colon cancer survivor and advocate, was also in his 30s when he received the shocking diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer. He had been experiencing unusual fatigue, despite maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle and having been a high school athlete.

“I had a lot of thoughts as to what was causing my symptoms when I went to the emergency room that day in June 2019. Cancer could not have been further from my mind,” he reflects.

In this article, we explore why doctors think there is an uptick in colorectal cancer in young adults, and how colon cancer screening can save lives.

Why Are Colon Cancer Rates Increasing?

Are colon cancer rates increasing simply because we are screening for it more? For instance, in 2019, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force lowered the recommended screening age for colorectal cancer from 50 to 45 for the general population.

The answer, however, is no, says Dr. Carole Macaron, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

“Colorectal cancer is indeed on the rise. This has been happening over the past two decades — well preceding the change in screening guidelines,” she explains.

And there’s not a singular factor causing cancer rates to rise, adds Dr. Daniel Landau, a board-certified oncologist in South Carolina and expert contributor for the Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com.

According to doctors and researchers, there are a few trends that could be the culprit of colorectal cancer rates increasing:

— Sedentary lifestyles

— Poor diet


— Genetics

— Environmental factors

[Read: Do Home Cancer Tests Work as Well as a Colonoscopy?]

Preventing Colon Cancer

Since the spike in colorectal cancer could be attributed to multiple factors, there are several approaches you can take to prevent colorectal cancer and improve your overall health. Here are several methods suggested by medical experts.

Lead an active lifestyle

“The more sedentary someone is, the higher their risk of colon cancer development,” Landau says. “Sitting for the majority of the day can double the risk of developing colon cancer in young patients.”

Landau suggests:

— Build breaks in the day to walk around if you have a sedentary job

— Use a standing desk

Stretch your legs often

[See: 11 Benefits of Strength Training That Have Nothing to Do With Muscle Size.]

Improve your diet

It’s well documented that some foods are carcinogenic and increase the risk for colorectal cancer, says Dr. Janese Laster, a board-certified physician in internal medicine, gastroenterology, obesity medicine and nutrition. Laster is the founder of Gut Theory Total Digestive Care in Washington, D.C.

Laster suggests avoiding:

— Red meat

— Processed meats

— Low-fiber diets, which are low in whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables


Gut microbiome diversity may also play a role. Various flora in the gut can improve the immune system and aid in digestion. Those who eat processed foods have less gut microbiome diversity, which could increase the risk of colorectal cancer, Laster adds.

“Processed foods create a pro-inflammatory environment in the gut, which is conducive to cancer growth,” Landau explains.

These foods often elevate blood sugar as well, which he adds can lead to high rates of cancer.

[Best Foods to Eat for Gut Health]

Stop smoking

Smoking increases your risk of colorectal cancer.

The carcinogens in tobacco can cause colon polyps to develop, which are frequently a precursor to colorectal cancer. Research also shows that stopping smoking can decrease your risk, even if you have smoked in the past. For help quitting smoking, talk to your health care provider.

For counseling on smoking cessation, you can try the following resources:

— Call 1-800-227-2345 for phone counseling from the American Cancer Society

— Visit smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669)

— Veterans can receive counseling over the phone at 1?855?QUIT?VET (1?855?784?8838)

Talk to your doctor about genetics

While the genes causing colorectal cancer have not increased, the prevalence of colorectal cancer in young people has led to more genetic research on the subject.

Genetics play a big role, says Charles R. Rogers, a behavioral scientist, master-certified health education specialist and a V Foundation Clinical Scholar based in Milwaukee.

Those with the following genetics have a higher risk:

— Family history of colorectal cancer

— Lynch syndrome, a condition that makes you more likely to get certain types of cancer, like colorectal cancer

— Familial adenomatous polyposis, an inherited gastrointestinal condition that causes polyps

If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or a family member with a gene linked to colorectal cancer, your medical provider might refer you for genetic counseling to determine if genetic testing is necessary. Or, they may order genetic testing for you directly. Genetic testing can cost several hundred dollars up to a few thousand dollars, and isn’t always covered by insurance plans, so your medical provider can help you determine when genetic testing would benefit you.

If you have any of the above conditions, talk to your medical provider about when it’s time for you to get a colorectal cancer screening.

Reduce environmental factors

It’s not just about what we consciously put into our bodies, Rogers says. It turns out that tiny particles that come from plastic products, microplastics, could also play a role.

“These end up in our food and water, which could be increasing the risk of colorectal cancer,” he explains.

In addition, places with a lot of pollution tend to have higher rates of colorectal cancer.

“Unfortunately, these areas often have fewer doctors and less access to healthy food, making it even harder to fight this preventable and treatable disease,” Rogers adds.

There’s still more research being done into the impact of environmental factors on colorectal cancer and overall health. If you’re able, you can take some precautions like:

— Drinking filtered tap water

— Keeping your home clean from dust, especially your curtains, towels and bedsheets

— Avoiding microwaving food in plastic containers

Screen Early for Colorectal Cancer

The USPSTF recommends colorectal screening start at age 45 for those with an average risk. There are several methods for colorectal cancer screenings, including:

Fecal occult blood test, like a fecal immunochemical test, or FIT Kit, is a lab test that checks for blood in the stool. If the test is positive, it doesn’t mean you have colon cancer, but your provider will refer you for further testing.

DNA stool test, like Cologuard, which checks for DNA changes in blood or stool samples, which may indicate cancer.

Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, which are tests that use a small, flexible tube with a camera to examine parts of the colon. A colonoscopy is a go-to test for colorectal cancer screening because it is both sensitive and reliable, and providers can remove polyps during the procedure.

Virtual colonoscopy or CT colonoscopy, which is a CT scan that takes detailed images of the colon to check for polyps or cancer.

The following symptoms could be due to a variety of conditions, but talk to a health care provider to rule out the possibility of colorectal cancer.

— Changes in bowel habits

— Bloody stool

— Abdominal pain

— Unexplained weight loss

— Fatigue

For minor symptoms, you can start with a discussion with your primary care provider. For more acute symptoms, such as severe abdominal pain, go to the emergency room. In both cases, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist for further treatment or testing.

“Early detection is key,” Rogers urges.

The survival rate for localized colorectal cancer, meaning before it has spread to other organs, is 90%, so catching the cancer at its earliest stage is your best chance at beating the odds.

The Bottom Line

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why more young adults are getting colorectal cancer. Due to a combination of environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors, colorectal cancer has been on the rise in younger populations.

Early screening for colorectal cancer is essential for timely treatment that will improve your survival rate.

“Had I been aware of the symptoms or the fact that colorectal cancer incidence was rapidly increasing in people my age, I am convinced that my cancer could have been caught earlier,” Thau says.

Peters shares a similar sentiment: “All of this was entirely preventable if I had only been seen earlier. So that’s why I’m sharing my story. If and when you turn 45 years old, go get a colonoscopy. If you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s, know the symptoms and know your family history.”

If something is going on with your body, do not stop until you know what is going on, Peters adds.

More from U.S. News

Having a Baby After Cancer: Fertility and Pregnancy

Best Anti-Cancer Foods

Where to Go for Cancer Treatment

Why Are More Young Adults Getting Colon Cancer? originally appeared on usnews.com

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up