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Why Young Americans are Being Diagnosed with Colon Cancer


Young onset colon cancer incidence is rising among Americans under the age of 50. Jason A. Zell, D.O., MPH, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine and Department of Epidemiology, and Program Director, Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program Division of Hematology/Oncology at the University of California Irvine Medical Center, is the corresponding author of a recent study showing dramatic increases in colorectal cancer among adults aged 20 to 49. Dr. Zell and colleagues from the University of California Irvine found that colorectal cancer in young adults “was more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage and therefore less likely to be cured.”

There are many proposed reasons for this increase in number of new cases of colorectal cancer among younger adults.

  1. Low index of suspicion from physicians. Dr. Zell hopes that his study and previous studies will help inform doctors and patients that colon cancer is a growing problem among the young and hopes that it will result in greater focus on early detection among symptomatic individuals.
  2. Young adults often ignore symptoms of colon cancer. Warning signs such as blood in the stool, weight loss, abdominal pain or cramping may not be recognizable symptoms among the young because most people associate colon cancer with older adults. Symptoms are often attributed to something else or just ignored.
  3. Younger individuals are more likely to be uninsured. Younger adults who do not have health care benefits are most likely not under the care of a family doctor. These individuals probably rely on an emergency room for treatment, and it is highly unlikely that colon cancer would be detected.
  4. Higher percentage of predisposing risk factors. Two significant predisposing factors are hereditary colon cancer syndrome and having a first-degree relative with colon cancer. The study notes that even if family history is known, it is not enough to sufficiently assess colon cancer risk among adults younger than 50.

Poor eating habits may also be a factor, but this requires further study to focus on how cuture and ethnicity relates to diet. What is clearly known is that a high-fat, low-fiber diet can increase colon cancer risk, as well as a diet high in red and processed meats. Dr. Zell pointed out that red and processed meats are also associated with poor outcomes among survivors.

The study concluded by saying, “More research is needed to characterize individuals with young-onset [colorectal cancer] and to determine how these individuals differ from young people who do not develop [colorectal cancer].” Dr. Zell’s current goal is to focus on cohort studies, looking equally at patients who do not have Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis as those who have a genetic predisposition. There is a great amount of hope as Dr. Zell and his team return to their research. As physicians and patients become more aware of the growing problem of colon cancer among the young, the disease can be detected at an earlier, more treatable stage. We also may see colon cancer incidence drop over the coming years with the Affordable Care Act in place, which helps ensure that every American has access to health care (Source: Asco Post).

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posted on October 23, 2015 in news