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Study: Colon cancer in young adults on the rise

March 03, 2017 | UC Irvine Health
woman consoling young man colon cancer under 50

Screening to detect and remove precancerous polyps among adults older than age 50 has largely contributed to declining colorectal cancer rates for the U.S. population as a whole.

However, a new study by the American Cancer Society found that the rate of colon cancer is rising in young adults. The results of this study echo those of a 2014 study done by UC Irvine Health oncologist Dr. Jason Zell, who was quoted in a New York Times article about the ACS study.

Zell's study, published in the Journal of Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology, analyzed more than 231,500 colorectal cancer cases reported in the California Cancer Registry over a 22-year period and found significant increases in colorectal cancer incidence among the age groups of 20-29 years and 30-39 years. Read more: Too young for colon cancer?

The increase may be related to the obesity epidemic, given the link between colorectal cancer and obesity.

"This may have particular relevance for young people who are overweight and don't exercise," says colorectal surgeon Dr. Alessio Pigazzi.

Check your colon cancer knowledge

Take a quiz by the UC Irvine Colon and Rectal Cancer Research Group and check to see if you know the facts about colon cancer:

Know the symptoms of colorectal cancer

Dr. William Karnes, a gastroenterologist at the H.H. Chao Comprehensive Digestive Disease Center, says that while the rise is cause for concern, the overall risk is still low.

"My advice is to vigilantly watch for persistent symptoms," he says.

They include:

  • Persistent bleeding
  • Altered bowel pattern
  • Thinning of stools
  • Weight loss
  • Pelvic pain

Colorectal surgeon Dr. Joseph Carmichael says that if you are under 50 and have these symptoms, insist on a screening.

"Concerning symptoms are often written off as hemorrhoids in younger rectal cancer patients," he says.

Karnes says a flexible sigmoidoscopy — a procedure in which the rectum and lower colon are examined through a scope — is an option for even subtle symptoms. Who should get screened?

What's your risk?

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosis and the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Despite the new study, it's still not common in people under 50, the age at which screening with colonoscopies or other colorectal screening tests begin for average-risk individuals.

Experts say that understanding your colorectal cancer risks, specifically whether you have a family history of the disease, is a key to staying healthy.

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