A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute made headlines for its startling and mysterious conclusion: The incidence of colorectal cancer in young adults has increased sharply in generations born after 1950. Individuals born in the 1990s (currently age 18 to 27) are twice as likely to develop colon cancer and four times as likely to develop rectal cancer than individuals born in the 1950s were at those ages.
Why is this type of cancer suddenly on the rise in younger adults? No one knows for certain. Researchers suspect changes in diet, more sedentary lifestyles, and obesity could be contributing factors. Another theory is that cancers are simply being detected much earlier than in past decades.
What Is Colorectal Cancer?
Colorectal cancer refers to cancer that begins in the colon or rectum, which together make up the large intestine. Sometimes they are referred to individually as colon cancer or rectal cancer. Most colorectal cancers begin with a polyp that develops on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. The two primary types of polyps are adenomas, which are most likely to become cancer, and hyperplastic and inflammatory polyps, which are more common but far less likely to become cancerous.
Polyps are common in people age 50 and older. Most aren’t cancerous. If a polyp does become cancerous, cancer cells can eventually spread to the wall of the colon or rectum. From there, they can spread to the blood or lymph vessels of the colon or rectum and eventually spread to lymph nodes and metastasize throughout the body.
Colorectal Cancer: Signs and Symptoms
As with many cancers, colorectal cancers sometimes occur with minimal — or no — symptoms. More often than not, though, this cancer is associated with telltale signs. If you know what to watch for, you’ll know if and when it’s time to schedule a colorectal screening to rule out cancer. If you develop any of the following symptoms, consult your doctor right away. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
Any indication of blood on or in the stool.
Cramps, gas or unusual stomach pain that persists.
Unexplained weight loss.
Constipation, diarrhea, bowel incontinence or other unusual bowel habits.
Feeling that your bowel isn’t emptying completely.
How to Reduce Your Risk of Developing Colorectal Cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, there is no way to definitively prevent colon cancer — or most cancers, for that matter. Some of the main risk factors for developing colorectal cancer — family history, advanced age and history of inflammatory bowel disease — aren’t within your control.
Others risk factors are within your control. Doctors recommend taking the following steps to reduce your risks:
Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding excess weight around your midsection.
Participating in regular moderate exercise.
Increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables and limiting red and processed meats.
Avoiding excess alcohol consumption.
Screening Is The Most Powerful Preventive Tool
Arguably, the most effective way to reduce the likelihood that you’ll develop colorectal cancer is to undergo regular colorectal cancer screening to detect cancerous or precancerous cells in the absence of other symptoms.
It takes about a decade for precancerous cells to form polyps. Screenings can detect precancerous polyps, so they can be removed before they become cancerous, and can detect cancerous polyps early when the cancer is curable.
Colorectal screening methods include fecal blood tests and colonoscopy. During a colonoscopy, a flexible tube with a viewing lens and tissue removal tool is inserted into the colon. A physician checks the colon lining for growths and can remove any abnormal growths detected.
Current guidelines recommend that most individuals consider a screening colonoscopy at age 50 — earlier for those with a family history of the disease talk to your physician about the best choice for your situation.