Colon cancer in young people rises, age for screening drops

By The Health News Team | March 8, 2022
Man eating a hamburger

If you’re 25 and experiencing changes in your bowel movements or have chronic fatigue or stomach cramps, you might chalk it up to poor eating habits or one too many nights out. However, these same symptoms can also be a sign of colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer. And a new study shows that more people in their 20s are being diagnosed with the colorectal cancer than ever before.

The study, published in a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, found that people age 20 to 29 have the greatest increase in colon cancer diagnoses when compared to other age groups. Additionally, the cancer is usually diagnosed in young people after it has advanced — when it is harder to treat than if it had been caught at an earlier stage.

According to Dr. David Bodkin, a board-certified oncologist and hematologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S. and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. While the rate of colon cancer cases has decreased each year in adults age 65 and older, rates of colon cancer increased every year by 1% in adults age 50 to 64 and by 2% in people younger than 50.

“Over the last several years, with increased screenings, we’ve seen a decrease of colon cancer in the population over 65,” Dr. Bodkin says. “But what’s worrisome is that in the last 10 years, we’ve seen an increase in people under age 50.”

New screening age now recommended
The increased diagnoses in younger people recently led the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to lower the recommended age to begin colorectal cancer screening from 50 to 45. Screening can detect polyps and early-stage cancer, which is easier to treat. For people under age 45, Dr. Bodkin recommends they pay close attention to their health.

“Colon cancer can present in many ways,” he says. “Unfortunately, in younger people, it may take a while for the symptoms to be looked at. This can mean they’re diagnosed at a later stage, the cancer may have advanced, and they may have a poorer prognosis.”

The American Cancer Society reports that colorectal cancer can cause one or more of the following symptoms, though symptoms don’t always appear immediately:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days

  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that’s not relieved by having one

  • Rectal bleeding with bright red blood

  • Blood in the stool, which might make the stool look dark brown or black

  • Cramping or abdominal pain

  • Weakness and fatigue

  • Unintended weight loss

Young people not yet at the screening age who experience any of these symptoms should talk with their doctor. For individuals with additional risk factors, such as a family history of colon cancer; a personal history of colorectal polyps, colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease; or other inherited syndromes linked to colon cancer, their doctor may recommend early screening.

Lifestyle risk factors you can change
Unlike risk factors related to genetics or your personal history, there are other risk factors that you can change to reduce your colon cancer risk. These include:

  • Being overweight

  • Not being physically active

  • Eating a diet high in red and processed meats

  • Smoking

  • Using or overusing alcohol

“The rising rate of colon cancer in younger people is a red flag,” Dr. Bodkin says. “We have to ask if younger people aren’t exercising enough or eating a healthy diet or are smoking or drinking too much.”

According to Dr. Bodkin, making a few lifestyle changes can lower the risk of colorectal cancer and many other types of cancer. These include getting regular exercise; eating a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and limits red and processed meats; quitting smoking; and limiting or forgoing alcohol use.

“Early detection is key, no matter your age,” Dr. Bodkin says. “Talk with your doctor about screening if you have any concerns, are 45 or older, or are experiencing symptoms of colorectal cancer.”

Learn more about colorectal cancer prevention and treatment at Sharp HealthCare.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. David Bodkin about colorectal cancer for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.


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