For most healthy twentysomethings, cancer doesn’t seem like a serious threat. After all, the median age for cancer diagnosis is 66.
But last year, a sobering new study from American Cancer Society revealed colorectal cancer (colon cancer and rectal cancer) rates had been rising among adults in their 20s and 30s. At first, researchers chalked it up to enhanced screenings leading to early diagnosis, but later realized more young people were dying from the disease, which is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in America. About 140,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2018.
Experts aren’t sure what combination of underlying environmental, genetic, and lifestyle factors are responsible for the rise colorectal cancer cases among younger people, says Scott Strong, MD, chief of gastrointestinal surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. But doctors have some hunches.
“It’s not surprising that the rise in colorectal cancer parallels the current obesity epidemic in the United States,” says David Liska, MD, a colorectal surgeon at Cleveland Clinic. “Many of the behaviors leading to weight gain, such as unhealthy dietary patterns and sedentary lifestyles, have also been shown to increase the risk for colorectal cancer.”
There is a silver lining: Colorectal cancer is largely preventable by maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle. A fiber-rich diet with a variety of fruits, veggies, and whole grains is key, says Jeffrey Clark, MD, oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Research shows limiting red meat and processed meat intake also helps, as well as not smoking and keeping drinking to a minimum.
Plus, the colon cancer survival rate is about 92% if caught in the early stages, according to the American Cancer Society. “Cancer can be prevented during screening colonoscopies where precancerous polyps can be removed before they have a chance to progress to cancer,” says David Liska, MD, a colorectal surgeon at Cleveland Clinic.
Avoid becoming a statistic and watch out for these early warning signs.
Anemia means you have low red blood cell count. Colon cancer tumors deplete your red blood cell supply. “Rapidly growing tumors outgrow your blood supply, often creating ulcers that seep blood periodically,” says John Kisiel, MD, gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic. This is why you will often see blood in your stool. Anemia will also cause weakness and fatigue.
You may notice red blood in your stool or simply on the toilet paper after wiping. Or your stool may be dark, caused by blood that has been digested in your GI tract. “Rectal bleeding can be caused by the act of passing stool, or without stool or not,” says Dr. Kisiel. However, rectal bleeding could also be caused by hemorrhoids or anal fissures. Either way, best to call your doctor if you notice blood in your toilet.
Involuntary weight loss
“Tumors may cause you to lose appetite, but they also alter your metabolism,” says Dr. Kisiel. Doctors aren’t sure exactly why tumors alter metabolism chemicals in your body, but they suspect that your body’s metabolism resources are often diverted to fight the tumor.
Difficulty going number-two
“Tumors often cause blockages that will make it harder for you to pass [stool],” says Dr. Kisiel. They also will alter the shape of your stool, often making them thinner and pencil-shaped. You also may experience diarrhea. Talk to your doctor if you notice these changes for longer than 4 weeks.
Abdominal cramping, pain, or gas
If you’re noticing more stomach pains, especially when going to the bathroom, it could be a sign of colon cancer.
You also may experience more gas. “Significantly increased gas that lasts several weeks or recurs over time,” says Dr. Clark.