Colon cancer is generally thought of as a disease affecting the older population, as in those 55 and older. But disease rates in the young have been increasing since 1980.
Even though the incidence of colon cancer is much lower in young people, a recent study by the American Cancer Society estimated the disease rate increased at 3.6 percent annually in people under 40.
What’s more, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the death rate for colorectal cancer in young people continues to climb.
So what’s important to know about colon cancer for people in their 30s?
The first thing: don’t ignore the symptoms.
“For people in their 20s and 30s, the overall incidence remains low, but the incidence has increased over the past few decades,” said Dr. Bonnie Ewald, a gastroenterologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. “If you have symptoms of rectal bleeding, change in your bowel habits, or abdominal pain, it is important to be evaluated by a physician.”
Current screening guidelines say people with an average risk – meaning those without a family history of colon cancer, symptoms, or genetic disorders – should start annual screenings once they reach the age of 50.
This leaves a big gap for young folks. Talk to your doctor and see if you might be someone who might benefit from earlier testing.
A colonoscopy is a standard procedure that allows a gastroenterologist to view the colon through a scope and look for polyps – growths in the organ that can be precancerous or benign.
If you can catch the polyps early, they can be removed.
At this point, it’s uncertain why colon cancer in young people is on the rise.
“More research needs to be done as to who is at increased risk of developing colon cancer for us to understand why this is occurring,” Ewald said.
Common symptoms you should look out for include a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, and anemia. It’s important to note, Ewald said, that blood in the stool or rectal bleeding is most commonly caused by other sources, like hemorrhoids.
Still, don’t ignore the signs. Listen to your body and get to a doctor if you find something is amiss.
“People with a family history of colon cancer are at increased risk of developing colon cancer,” Ewald said. If there is a family history of colon cancer, it is important patients discuss with their provider the appropriate time to start screening.”