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Never Too Young: What Adults Under 50 Need to Know About Colorectal Cancer

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Houston Medical Times

Ah, youth! A time of mostly carefree, exuberant living, right? That’s what it should be. But the truth is unexpected health concerns can cloud that ideal vision. Recent research indicates that colorectal cancer is on the rise in younger adults, an emerging and troubling trend for oncologists like me. In the past 25 years, cases of colorectal cancer in those under the age of 50 have increased by 51 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. While the direct cause of this increase varies by patient, one thing is clear: cancer knows no age restrictions.

That’s why it’s crucial for adults of all ages to become more informed about their colorectal health and learn to recognize cancer signs and symptoms. The good news is that colorectal cancer death rates continue to drop due to advancements in screening, prevention, and treatment. The questions and answers below can help you better understand how to take control of your health.

Am I at risk? Age is just one of many risk factors related to colorectal cancer. It’s vital for people for people under the age of 50 to become familiar with the other risk factors. Diets heavy in red and processed meats have been linked to increased risk, as has obesity, diabetes, and inactivity. Those with a history of polyps or inflammatory bowel disease may also be at higher risk. Risk is also tied to family history or inherited syndromes, such as Lynch Syndrome.


When should I get screened? If you were born around 1990, you have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer compared to people born around 1950, when risk was lowest, according to the American Cancer Society. This trend led the ACS to revise its colorectal cancer screenings guidelines to recommend most people begin regularly screening at the age of 45, instead of 50. Those with increased risk factors should consult their physician about whether to begin screenings earlier than age 45.

What signs and symptoms should I watch for? Even those under the age of 45 should pay close attention to the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer – and so should their doctors. While colorectal cancer often doesn’t have symptoms until later stages, the most common signs include changes in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, dark or bloody stool, cramping or abdominal pain, weakness and fatigue, and unexplained weight loss. No matter your age, don’t hesitate to see a doctor.

What are the key challenges? The Colorectal Cancer Alliance found that 85 percent of young adults with early-onset colorectal cancer experienced anxiety or depression, 64 percent took a leave of absence from work or school, and 62 percent experienced financial difficulties. Young adults living with colorectal cancer shouldn’t be afraid to seek help. Many resources, such as counseling and social work, tips for managing cancer in the workplace, and guidance on family planning, are available through providers like Texas Oncology.

When it comes to colorectal cancer, the facts tell the story. The five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer discovered early and before the cancer spreads is 90 percent, but only 39 percent of colorectal cancer cases are identified in this early stage, according to the ACS. Even as we see more younger patients with colorectal cancer at Texas Oncology, there is plenty of reason to have hope for positive outcomes as treatment advances.

This article originally appeared in the April issues of: