You’re Not Too Young to Get Colon Cancer Anymore
When Chadwick Bozeman died in 2020 at age 43 after a battle with colon cancer, it opened a lot of people’s eyes to the climbing rates of this cancer in young men like him. This month, a new report from the American Cancer Society (ACS) confirms that we need to keep paying attention to this: it clearly lays out how rates of colorectal cancer are increasing in young people.
Colorectal cancer is a big risk: It’s currently the third leading cause of both new cancers and cancer deaths for men (behind lung and prostate). And while colorectal cancer rates are declining for people ages 65 and older, they’re climbing for younger people—especially men.
Here’s a snapshot of the situation, according to that newly released ACS data:
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- Men are at higher risk: Incidence of colorectal cancer in the US was 33 percent higher in men than women.
- Colorectal cancer incidence doesn’t escape health disparities: Incidence is highest in people who are Alaska Native, Native American, and Black. There are similar disparities in mortality.
- Younger people are vulnerable: In 2019, 1 in 5 colorectal cancers were in people ages 54 and younger. That’s up from 1 in 10 in 1995.
Fortunately, scientists are working hard to figure out why and what to do about it. As we previously reported in a deep dive on why so many otherwise healthy young men are being diagnosed with colon cancer, research teams at places including the Young Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber and at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are devoting their lives to figuring out what’s behind this.
What Drives Colorectal Cancers
The ACS says that the strongest risk factor for colorectal cancer is a family history of the disease. So if someone in your immediate family—a parent, sibling, or child—had colorectal cancer, your risk is higher and you need to talk with your physician about getting screened earlier than your peers. Currently, it’s recommended that people of average risk start screening at age 45.
Lifestyle factors also contribute to risk. Specifically, an unhealthy diet, being sedentary, smoking, and high alcohol consumption all push risk up.
But that still doesn’t explain why so many young men are being diagnosed with late-stage cancers right now. One possibility is that increased screening translates to increased diagnoses. More possibilities include imbalances in the gut’s microbiome, possibly also due to lifestyle factors.
Signs and Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer
While the recommended age for screening has dropped from age 50 to age 45, colorectal cancer is still rising in men younger than that. It’s important that all guys, even if you think you’re “too young” for colorectal cancer, pay attention to symptoms that could indicate this cancer. MH Advisor Felice Schnoll-Sussman, M.D., has written about young men and colon cancer for Men’s Health, and can’t stress enough how critical it is that you listen to your body.
Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include:
• Rectal bleeding
• Blood in the stool or on toilet paper
• Changes in stools, like narrowing or changes in consistency
• Nausea, stomach pain, bloating
• Other new or different bowel symptoms or habits.
If you notice any of these, see a doctor. Many cases of colorectal cancer have been diagnosed because people recognized these symptoms and got care.
Screening for Colorectal Cancer Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Hassle
Many new colorectal cancer screening methods have come onto the market recently. While colonoscopies are the gold standard for diagnosis, there are many other tests available for routine screening (again, if you are having symptoms, go to a doc. Don’t just screen at home).
Just be aware that home tests sound super easy, but do involve a certain amount of poking around in your own poop or packing it up to send off by mail. So sometimes it’s just easier to go the colonoscopy route. Here’s the lowdown on all of the best current screening methods and what they require. And if you do choose colonoscopy, you don’t necessarily have to have sedation (check out one guy’s experience here). No matter how you do it, get screened if you’re eligible due to age and family history or if you have symptoms at any age.
Marty Munson, currently the health director of Men’s Health, has been a health editor at properties including Marie Claire, Prevention, Shape and RealAge. She’s also certified as a swim and triathlon coach.
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