Mar 19, 2024 - Health

What to know about rising rates of colorectal cancer among young people

The Fight Colorectal Cancer "United in Blue" flag installation on the National Mall spotlighting the rise in young adult Colorectal cancer cases

The Fight Colorectal Cancer flag installation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on March 12. Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Fight Colorectal Cancer

Rates of colorectal cancer are rising among people under 50 in the U.S., though experts remain unsure about what's causing the worrying phenomenon.

Why it matters: As March marks Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, many experts are highlighting the need to be proactive in learning about the disease and testing for it.

What to know about colon cancer rates

In the U.S., colorectal cancer is the third most common cause of cancer‐related death in both men and women.

  • Although new cases of colon cancer have been declining among adults 65 and older, they've increased 1% to 2% annually in people younger than 55 since the mid-1990s, according to the American Cancer Society.
  • Yet not only are people getting diagnosed younger, they're also being diagnosed with later stages of the disease — emphasizing the need for younger adults to be screened for the disease earlier.
  • Overall, the proportion of people under 55 diagnosed with colon cancer has roughly doubled from 11% in 1995 to 20% in 2019.

Why is colon cancer rising among younger adults?

Experts don't know why exactly colorectal cancer rates are rising among younger generations.

  • Although data has shown some variation in colorectal cancer incidence and mortality tied to lifestyle factors like diet and weight, this doesn't explain all of the increases doctors are seeing.
  • However, differences in the types of bacteria found in colon cancer tumors found in older and younger patients could offer clues about what's behind the rising rates, though more research is needed.

What are the possible signs of colon cancer?

Patients should be aware of possible risk factors that could predispose them to colon cancer, such as a family history of the cancer or other illnesses, like inflammatory bowel disease, according to the ACS.

  • Possible signs and symptoms of the disease include changes in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain and unintended weight loss.

How to test for colon cancer

In 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force lowered the recommended age Americans should start getting screened for colon cancer, from age 50 to age 45.

  • There are several ways to test for colon cancer, including getting a colonoscopy, blood tests and stool tests, per the ACS.
  • Most insurers and Medicare will cover the costs of colon cancer screening tests starting at age 45, when they are recommended by the USPSTF, per ACS.

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