Excuse Busters #4:  I’m Too Young to Get Colon Cancer

Rachel Morrell

Doctor and patient discuss colon cancer risk factors

Still looking for the best excuse to avoid a colonoscopy? Try this one on for size: “I’m too young for colon cancer.” That is a myth. You’re never too young for colon cancer.  

Colon Cancer in Young Adults

The rate of colon cancer in young adults is increasing — people born in the 1990s are twice as likely to develop colon cancer as those born in the 1950s. Colon cancer was once considered a disease that only affected older people, but not any longer. So regardless of your age, if you have symptoms or risk factors like family history of advanced polyps or colon cancer, you should visit a gastroenterologist to discuss scheduling a colonoscopy.

Who Gets Colon Cancer?

Although the majority of colon cancer cases occur in adults who are 50 and older, about 10 percent of colon cancer cases are in individuals younger than 50. Because symptoms are uncommon in the early stages of colon cancer, the disease can develop slowly without being noticed. Young-onset colon cancer tends to be aggressive and to form in the distal colon near the rectum. This makes it more challenging to treat.

While colon cancer mortality has declined due to advanced screening initiatives for those over 50, colon cancer mortality among young adults has steadily increased by one percent per year between 2007 and 2016.                 

According to the 2018 Young-Onset Colon Cancer Survey Report:

  • Common symptoms of colon cancer in young adults are blood in the stool, constipation, bloating, rectal bleeding and diarrhea
  • 71 percent of people under 50 with colorectal cancer are diagnosed at stage III or IV
  • 67 percent of young patients saw at least two physicians (some more than four physicians) before being correctly diagnosed with colorectal cancer
  • 41 percent waited at least six months after experiencing symptoms before talking to a doctor                   

Read about and watch videos of Real-Life Stories of Young Onset Colon Cancer Survivors

Know Your Family History of Colon Cancer

Your family’s medical history can increase your risk for young-onset colon cancer. In many cases, this is because family members often share common risk factors related to environment, diet, habits or health. Familial colon cancer accounts for 30 to 40 percent of all colon cancer cases. Family members who have a parent, sibling or child with colon cancer are twice as likely to develop colon cancer and should be screened ten years before the age at which their relative was diagnosed.

Colon cancer can also be genetic. Hereditary colon cancers are linked to a specific genetic anomaly and account for about four to six percent of all colon cancer cases. The most common hereditary colon cancers are hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer, Lynch syndrome (HNPCC) and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). Members of families with a history of hereditary colon cancer should consult a colorectal surgeon.

If you don’t know your family’s history of colon cancer, it’s time to ask. Early detection and treatment for patients with familial and hereditary colon cancer requires the support of the family doctor, a gastroenterologist and possibly a genetic counselor and colorectal surgeon. Your medical team may recommend screenings at a younger age and shorter intervals between screenings.  

What is the Right Age for a First Colonoscopy?

The American Cancer Society recommends all adults at average risk for colon cancer begin screening at age 45, but individuals with a family history of colon cancer need to get screened earlier. A colonoscopy is the best test to detect and prevent colon cancer because it examines the entire colon lining for precancerous polyps and removes growths before they become cancerous.

People of all ages should be familiar with the risk factors of colon cancer and be able to recognize warning signs and symptoms. Call your doctor right away if you experience abdominal pain, bloody stool, change in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, anemia or vomiting. You’re never too young to develop colon cancer. Spread the word, know your risk and don’t ignore your symptoms.

Click here to locate a fellowship-trained gastroenterologist to help you make decisions for your health, medical history and lifestyle.

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