Historically, if you were an adult at average risk for colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon and rectum), also known as colon cancer, you had to start having colonoscopies at age 50.
But in May 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated the guidelines. Now you’ll need a colonoscopy when you’re 45. But you should do it sooner if you have a family history of colon cancer.
Indeed, recent studies show that it is increasing in people under 50 years of age.
“We have never seen more colorectal cancer in these young people. This is the only demographic group, people under the age of 50, where this disease is increasing and becoming more deadly, no less common and less deadly,” says Mark Lewis, MD, director of gastrointestinal oncology at Intermountain Healthcare. in Utah.
Specifically, Lewis notes that “women have a greater risk” of getting this cancer early.
Colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related death among people in the United States. In fact, it is expected to cause around 52,000 deaths in 2023. And although there is a downward curve for colorectal cancer in people over 50, it is the opposite for people . less than 50.
“In my practice, if you take the average age of all my patients, the average age of all my gastrointestinal cancer patients is 68. And yet, 1 in 7 of my patients is a young adult with colorectal cancer, and I see more women than men,” Lewis says.
So what is the cause of this rapid increase in cases? Experts don’t know for sure. But lifestyle and changing environmental factors in recent times could have a role to play.
This may include:
- Obesity and overweight
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Drinking too many alcoholic beverages
- Low fiber diets
- High fat diets
- Eating too many processed meats
- Intestinal bacteria
According to the National Cancer Institute, if you are obese, you are 1.3 times more likely to get colon cancer.
Most people do not have noticeable symptoms during the early stages of colon cancer. But the irony is that it’s easily treatable during this time.
Lewis says you know your body well. So keep a close eye out for any “out of proportion” symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of colon cancer can include:
- A constant change in your bowel routine, such as diarrhea, constipation, or a different stool consistency
- Blood in your poop (rectal bleeding)
- stomach upset or discomfort, such as cramping, gas, bloating, or pain
- You don’t feel like you’ve completely emptied your bowels.
- Weakness or fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
Unfortunately, Lewis notes that “you’re never too young to get cancer.” Especially colon cancer.
If you notice these signs, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Write down any patterns you may have noticed. Also, if you have a family history of colon cancer, be sure to discuss it when you visit the doctor.
According to Lewis, any gut-related symptom that “doesn’t seem to align with what you understand about your body and your cycle, deserves investigation.”
But he also acknowledges that it’s very common for doctors to dismiss concerns like blood in your poop as “just hemorrhoids” or, for women, as a “gynecological problem.”
So what can you do? Lewis insists that young adults, especially women, should stand up for themselves.
“A, you are the expert, the content expert, on your own body. You know which patterns are abnormal for you and you should report them to a doctor. B, you should know your family history. There is absolutely a component here of heredity,” he says.
If you have a family history, your doctor will usually take the age of the youngest person in your family with colon cancer and subtract 10 years from that age. This is the ideal age at which you should start getting screened for colon cancer.
If you are at average risk, start having annual colonoscopies at age 45.
There are things you can do to take control and reduce your risk of colon cancer. First, get screened when you become eligible or notice the first signs of bowel cancer.
A colonoscopy is one of the best screening procedures available to nip cancer in the bud and prevent it from growing or spreading in your gut.
To get one, you will need to see a colonoscopist. This is usually a gastroenterologist – a bowel specialist – or a general surgeon.
During the procedure, they will insert a flexible tube with a lighted camera on the end into your large intestine. If they see a polyp — a type of extra piece of tissue that grows like a skin tag inside your body — they’ll remove it.
“You interrupted the disease trajectory of this polyp. It can’t become cancer if it’s removed from your body,” says Lewis. “So to sum up, know yourself, know your family, and know the age at which you should start screening.”
In addition to this, you should:
- Eat a balanced diet with whole foods, fruits and vegetables.
- Add whole grains and fiber to your meals.
- Reduce or quit smoking.
- Find ways to be more physically active. You can start with regular walks and progress to more rigorous exercises.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
- Eat less red meat and processed foods in general.
- Take calcium and vitamin D supplements if you are deficient. Studies have shown that it can reduce your risk of colon cancer.