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The Downside of Being a Millennial—Increased Colon Cancer Risk

Rachel Morrell

young onset colon cancer

Being born in 1976, I am a part of Generation X, the generation of latchkey kids, MTV, Atari, VCRs, Ronald Reagan, Madonna, and the TV sitcom. Sandwiched between the Baby Boomers and Millennials, the Xers were known for their lack of supervision as divorce rates increased and moms went back to work. It was a time of playing outside until dark, day-long adventures on a bicycle and watching lots and lots of television.  

Yes, those were the good ol' days. As adults, my peers and I are supposedly independent, resourceful, skeptical of authority, and cynical. Our generation gave way to the Millennials, born in the 1980s to 2000s, who are known for being tech-savvy, self-centered and unable to commit--as well as being more prone to colon cancer. Studies find that, although colon and rectal cancer incidence are decreasing overall, they are increasing for Americans under the age of 55. In fact, someone born in 1990 has twice the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer at the same age had they been born in 1950. Unfortunately, colorectal cancers among the younger generation are often discovered in advanced stages because colon screenings are not recommended for individuals under the age of 50. 

Currently, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends a baseline screening colonoscopy for men and women who are at average risk for colon cancer at the age of 50 and every ten years thereafter.  The main obstacles preventing eligible individuals from being screened was cost and education. The cost barrier was abolished by the Affordable Care Act, and the education barrier was tackled by researchers, public health organizations and physicians, who made significant efforts to disseminate information about this deadly but preventable disease.

It seems like a logical action-reaction scenario: inform men and women who are eligible for screening about the dangers of colon cancer and the life-saving preventative benefits of a colonoscopy, and they will choose to be screened, right? Well, to a certain extent, yes.  With the increase of regular colonoscopies in individuals between the ages of 50 and 75, gastroenterologists have been able to detect and remove precancerous growths before they can become cancerous. This has caused colorectal cancer incidence to steadily decrease over the past several decades. The problem is that people under the age of 50 who do not have a family history or personal history of colon cancer or colon polyps are not eligible for screening and are not properly educated because their age falls below the target audience for colon screening education. 

This gaping problem, which does not yet have a solution, is expected to have dire consequences. Dr. George J. Chang, chief of colorectal surgery at MD Cancer Center, made a prediction that by 2030, one in 10 colon cancers and one in four rectal cancers will be diagnosed in individuals under the age of 50. Unfortunately, most Americans still are under the false impression that colon cancer is a disease that affects the elderly, and younger people are unaware of the symptoms. Because young people tend to not visit their doctors very often, colon cancer can progress for many years because most cases of colon cancer do not have symptoms in the early stages. Young people are often more prone to ignore symptoms such as rectal bleeding, weight loss, abdominal cramping, or changes in bathroom habits. 

Why are there more people getting colon cancer at younger ages? Chang suggests that it is not that our genes have changed over time, but that our environmental exposures and behaviors have changed. Obesity, sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets increasingly threaten our health, and Chang is most concerned about the speed of increase in young-onset colon cancer incidence. "The good news is that it's still uncommon in individuals under 50," he said. "It's important for us to be thinking about this, because it's clearly not a trend that seems to be leveling off."

Without more research, we will probably not see a major change in the colon screening guidelines. Chang thinks that less invasive tests could hold the answer. For example, the Cologuard stool test, which was approved by the FDA in 2014, can be taken at home and is better at detecting growths that may already be cancerous. It is also essential that Americans, from old to young, are aware of the warning signs and symptoms of colon cancer and visit their primary physician regularly. If you notice any bowel changes that are concerning to you, don't hesitate to call your doctor and request an appointment. No one is too young for colon cancer. Be a part of the solution by informing yourself and spreading the word (Source: CNN).


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Real-Life Stories of Young-Onset Colon Cancer Survivors

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