Cases of colorectal cancer are rising among adults younger than 55, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society (ACS). Here’s everything you need to know about these “highly concerning” findings and what you can do to keep yourself cancer-free.
The report, published earlier this week, found that Americans are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at younger ages than ever before. From 1995 to 2019, cases among U.S. adults under the age of 55 — what doctors refer to as “early-onset” colorectal cancer — increased by 11 percent. The disease is being detected at later stages, too. Across all age groups, a whopping 60 percent of colorectal cancer diagnoses in 2019 were “advanced.”
The report also noted significant racial disparities for Native American, Alaska Native, and Black people, who were much more likely to die from colorectal cancer than patients from other communities.
ACS’s latest findings echo previous research on the topic, including a report from 2017. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause of these alarming shifts, researchers believe environmental and dietary factors are at play.
“We’re not trying to blame anybody for their cancer diagnosis,” Dr. William Dahut, chief scientific officer at ACS, told CNN. “But when you see something occurring in a short period of time, it’s more likely something external to the patient that’s driving that, and it’s hard not to at least think — when you have something like colorectal cancer — that something diet-related is not impossible.”
Colorectal cancer — AKA colon cancer — occurs when abnormal cells grow in the lower part of a person’s digestive tract. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is the fourth most common cancer among U.S. adults. It also the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths nationwide. The disease made headlines in 2020 after it claimed the life of beloved actor Chadwick Boseman, who was just 43 when he died.
Symptoms can range from changes in bowel movements, to abdominal pain, to sudden, unexplained weight loss.
Certain people are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. Risk factors include a personal or family history of colon cancer; other colon-related issues, such as inflammatory bowel disease; genetic factors; and lifestyle factors, including a low-fiber diet, lack of physical activity, and tobacco use.
There is no surefire way to prevent colon cancer, although eating a high-fiber diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is said to help. Increasing your physical activity and reducing your alcohol intake can also be beneficial.
The good news? This cancer is treatable, especially when detected at an early stage. About nine in every 10 people whose colon cancer is caught early live another five years, the CDC noted.
ACS currently recommends regular screenings in the form of stool tests or colonscopies for all adults at average risk ages 45–75. People at an increased risk for colon cancer should talk to their doctor about starting screenings earlier or getting more frequent exams. And as always, consult with your doctor if you show symptoms of colon cancer, regardless of your age.
“These highly concerning data illustrate the urgent need to invest in targeted cancer research studies dedicated to understanding and preventing early-onset colorectal cancer,” Dr. Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said in a press statement. “The shift to diagnosis of more advanced disease also underscores the importance of screening and early detection, which saves lives.”
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