Most people tend to think of colon and rectal cancers as diseases that
affect older people—after all, screenings aren’t recommended
until age 50 and in the past young people generally weren’t diagnosed
with the disease in significant numbers. Unfortunately, that isn’t
the case anymore.
A new study in the
Journal of the National Cancer Institute states that while colorectal cancer rates have been declining among people
55 and older, they’ve been increasing for those who are younger.
In fact, someone who is 27 years old today has double the risk of colon
cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer compared to someone who
was 27 years old in 1977.
“It’s a quandary—that decrease in colorectal cancer rates
for older people is attributed to the screening guidelines. But because
they focus on people in their later years, younger people don’t
get screened and there is a greater chance the cancer won’t be discovered
until it’s advanced and treatment is more difficult,” says
Houssam Al-Kharrat, MD, a gastroenterologist at
Covenant Health Partners in Lubbock. “That is a shame, because catching cancer early can
make a huge difference in the outcome, especially with colon cancer, which
grows slowly. Until screening recommendations are revised, it would be wise for young
people to know more about colorectal cancer--and not just know about it,
but seek medical attention if they suspect something is wrong”
The Risk Factors
Contributing factors such as age and a family history of colorectal cancer
can’t be controlled, but there are others that can—and should—be
managed from a young age.
“A poor diet is perhaps one of the worst things for colorectal health,”
Dr. Al-Kharrat says. “Recent research indicates that certain foods
may lead to a higher risk of colon or rectal cancers if consumed often.
That includes red meat, which has
saturated fat, and
cold cuts or processed meats, because of chemical compounds such as nitrites that may pose a risk.”
Instead, Dr. Al-Kharrat recommends a diet that emphasizes whole foods.
“Fruits and vegetables have a wealth of nutrients that contribute
to good health, and many of them also are rich in fiber, which is beneficial
for the colon,” Dr. Al-Kharrat says. “Pears, sweet potatoes,
peas and leafy green vegetables are all good choices. Beans such as kidney
and pinto also are fiber sources.”
Obesity is another risk factor, so in tandem with a healthy diet, people
should keep moving. “Physical fitness not only helps maintain a
normal weight, it has also been found to cut colorectal cancer risk on
its own, as sedentary people have an increased risk for the disease,”
Dr. Al-Kharrat says. “The American Cancer Society recommends 150
minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes if workouts are more
Dr. Al-Kharrat also urges people to cut out cigarettes and cut back on
alcohol—regular smokers and drinkers may be more susceptible to
these kinds of cancers.
“Because younger people usually aren’t screened for colorectal
cancer, unless they have a family history of the disease or an inflammatory
condition such as Crohn’s disease, they should be aware of the warning
signs and promptly seek medical attention,” Dr. Al-Kharrat says.
- Bleeding when passing stools
- Constipation, diarrhea or any other abnormality in bowel movements
- Stomach pain that doesn’t go away
- Weight loss
“Colon health can definitely be affected by lifestyle choices people
make, and people shouldn’t put off developing good habits—they
could have an immediate impact on colorectal cancer risk,” Dr. Al-Kharrat says.