Colorectal Cancer Is Killing More Younger Men and Women

By Pat Carragher - January 23, 2024

Colon and rectal cancers have become the leading causes of cancer death in younger adults, according to a new study from the American Cancer Society. The findings were published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. While overall cancer deaths continued to decline, in 2021, the study shows that in people under 50, colorectal cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death in men and second in women behind breast cancer. It was fourth in 1998.

Outside of skin cancer, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates in 2024 about 106,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer, while another 46,000 will be diagnosed with rectal cancer.

Dr. Amalia Stefanou, a surgeon in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, says while the reasons for this rise aren’t exactly known, she’s been noticing younger patients coming into Moffitt every day.

“A potential reason that younger patients have higher mortality rates when diagnosed with colon and rectal cancer may be a delay in diagnosis,” Stefanou said. “Younger patients who might present with vague symptoms, for example, a change in bowel habits or rectal bleeding, may initially be told that it’s stress, hemorrhoids or something else.”

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"Younger patients who might present with vague symptoms, for example, a change in bowel habits or rectal bleeding, may initially be told that it’s stress, hemorrhoids or something else."

- Dr. Amalia Stefanou, Gastrointestinal Oncology Program

A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute points to four “red flag” symptoms that researchers believe could be a sign of early onset colorectal cancer. Abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, diarrhea and iron-deficiency anemia were identified as the key symptoms that doctors should be on the lookout for.

The vagueness of those symptoms can sometimes lead to a delay in diagnosis. Stefanou stresses the importance of knowing your family medical history.

The current screening guidelines for colon cancer recommend colonoscopy beginning at age 45.

If a close family member had colon cancer, you may be at increased genetic risk and should start having colonoscopies even earlier.

Another study from the American Cancer Society showed the percentage of colorectal cancer diagnoses that occurred in people younger than 55 doubled between 1995 and 2019, increasing from 11% to 20%. A 2021 study published in  JAMA Network Open estimates that by the year 2040, colorectal cancer will be the leading cause of cancer deaths in people ages 20 to 49.

There are still ways to decrease your risk of colon cancer.

“Similar to ways you would keep yourself healthy,” Stefanou said. “Definitely quit smoking. It’s the single greatest risk factor for all types of cancers, even vaping. Being overweight is another major risk factor, so stay active, exercise, and take a diet high in fruits and vegetables. The fiber helps keep your bowels regular and are full of antioxidants, which help your body fight cancer.”

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