While colorectal cancer was once most often diagnosed among those ages 50 and older, now younger people also need to be on the alert.
The American Cancer Society reports that the number of younger adults diagnosed with colon cancer in their 20s and 30s is increasing. On the other hand, the diagnostic rates for those in their 50s or older is experiencing a slight decline.
According to Dr. Damaris Gautier, a medical director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield, doctors don’t yet see a clear reason for the increasing colon cancer rates in younger people. “If we had to make a guess, the increase could be attributed to genetic factors, but there are also environmental factors, such as being exposed to harmful substances or triggers that cause the body to change,” Dr. Gautier said.
Who’s at High Risk?
Talk to your doctor if you have these high-risk factors:
A personal history of colorectal cancer or precancerous polyps
A family history of the disease
Chronic inflammatory bowel disease, including ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, a condition that causes the colon to be chronically inflamed
Certain inherited conditions, including familial adenomatous polyposis and Lynch syndrome
Some African Americans should start screening at age 45
What Are the Screening Options?
While screening can help spot this cancer early, many people still avoid this potentially lifesaving tool.
Colonoscopy is the most common screening tool. A doctor uses a colonoscope — a flexible, lighted tube with an attached camera — to look at the entire rectum and colon for signs of cancer. The doctor can even remove precancerous growths called polyps during the procedure.
Unfortunately, some people may avoid a colonoscopy because they are nervous about it. In fact, they may pass up colorectal cancer screening altogether.
Dr. Gautier says there’s no reason to be afraid of the procedure. “The worst thing is the prep before even going in for the test,” she said.
The test itself is so painless that some patients don’t even realize when it’s over and done. “Many patients … wake up and ask, ‘When are you are taking me for the test?’ The hardest part of a colonoscopy is not the test, there is nothing to be concerned or scared about.”
Other screening options are available, based on your doctor’s recommendation. However, a colonoscopy is more comprehensive since it offers the opportunity to immediately remove a polyp if necessary.
A fecal occult blood test: A lab scans a stool sample for blood, a possible sign of cancer.
Sigmoidoscopy: This procedure is similar to a colonoscopy, but it looks only at the rectum and the lower colon.
Barium enema: A series of X-rays highlight any problems in the colon and rectum.
Virtual colonoscopy: A CT scan supplies detailed images of the colon.
What Are the Symptoms?
Early colon cancer may not have any symptoms, which is why screening is so important. Warning signs include:
Anemia, which causes symptoms such as weakness, excessive fatigue and sometimes shortness of breath
Bleeding from the rectum
Blood in the stool or in the toilet after having a bowel movement
Dark or black stools
A change in bowel habits or the shape of the stool not caused by a change in diet
An urge to have a bowel movement when the bowel is empty
Can You Prevent Colorectal Cancer?
These healthy lifestyle tips may help to protect you from colon cancer:
Eat a diet that’s high in fruits, vegetables and fiber.
Avoid eating red, grilled meats and processed meats.
Avoid smoking, heavy use of alcohol and sedentary lifestyles.
Keep weight in check.
Play It Smart
Colorectal cancer can cross all age boundaries. If you notice anything that could be a symptom, including any of those listed above, play it smart and talk to your health care provider. Like most illnesses, an early diagnosis gives you the best chance to make a successful recovery.
One of the best ways to assess your risk for certain diseases is to review your family’s health history. Do you have a family event like a reunion or a potluck meal planned? Take the opportunity to talk about the chronic conditions that may run in your family.
Look beyond your immediate family and find out about grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. If your relatives are uncomfortable talking in a group, use one-on-one time.
Develop a checklist of what you find out and share it with your doctor. This information can guide your decisions about early screenings for issues such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.