Colorectal cancer has usually been seen as a disease affecting older people. But as Reza Nazemzadeh, MD, explains, young people need to be aware of their risks and the preventative measures they can take.

News, Your Health | 3 years ago

More Young People are Getting Colorectal Cancer: How Can You Lower Your Risk?

Colorectal cancer has usually been seen as a disease affecting older people. But as Reza Nazemzadeh, MD, explains, young people need to be aware of their risks and the preventative measures they can take. 

Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, as well as the third leading cause of cancer-related death. For a long time, the vast majority of those diagnosed with the disease were aged 50 or older. But suddenly, a new trend is emerging: more and more people around the world who are under the age of 50 are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

“At every major meeting we have, we talk about it,” says Reza Nazemzadeh, MD, an oncologist at Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute. And while theories abound, no medical professionals are quite sure about the cause of this disturbing phenomenon. So with this trend in mind, what should young people know?

The importance of eating healthy

“A sedentary lifestyle is something we’ve always known as a risk factor for colorectal cancer,” says Dr. Nazemzadeh. And studies have shown that those who exercise have a 20-30% lower risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Even just a couple hours of cardiovascular exercise a week — such as jogging, playing a sport, or taking part in any sort of physical activity you enjoy — can make a difference.

Additionally, eating a healthy diet that is low in saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber is recommended. After all, overweight and obese individuals are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with the disease. Not smoking and limiting your alcohol intake are other steps you can take to lower your risk.

Changing screening habits

In the past, the medical community recommended patients get a colonoscopy at the age of 50. But given the recent increase in colorectal cancer among young people, the American Cancer Society now sets that standard age at 45. But ongoing studies might find that even earlier screening programs might be needed in the average risk person. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, doctors recommend you get screened ten years younger than the age at which your relative was diagnosed. For instance, if a parent was diagnosed at the age of 45, you should get a colonoscopy at 35.

A new test called Cologuard has also become a popular option among those getting screened at a younger age. It’s non-endoscopic, easy-to-use, and a possible compromise for patients whose insurance may not cover a colonoscopy at a younger age.

'More people need to be talking about this'

“I didn’t see this kind of trend at the beginning of my career, and I’ve been doing this for 16 years” says Dr. Nazemzadeh, who’s been struck by how quickly this trend has taken hold. He estimates that the data on this uptick in younger diagnoses only started about five years ago. Understandably, patients and the medical community are still playing catch-up and getting educated on what this means as far as colorectal cancer screening habits go.

“If you have symptoms like rectal bleeding or abdominal pain, a colorectal cancer screening has to be considered more seriously than it was in the past,” says Dr. Nazemzadeh. Before this trend, doctors would assume younger patients were simply dealing with hemorrhoids or something similarly minor if they were showing symptoms. Now doctors need to be thorough and consider even a symptom like iron deficiency — particularly among men — as something worth investigating with a screening.

While many ideas have been put forward as to why this trend is happening — from poor modern diets to widespread sedentary lifestyles — doctors aren’t ready to make any big conclusions as to a clear cause. But Dr. Nazemzadeh knows one thing for sure: this trend is real — and must be taken into account when symptoms arise. So if you feel like you might have symptoms, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about getting screened.

Did you know that colonoscopies prevent colon cancer? This screening test can also find colon cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat. To schedule a colonoscopy appointment at Atrium Health, call 704-512-6161.