Q+A: Why Are More Young People Getting Colon Cancer?


A new study from the American Cancer Society points out a mysterious trend: Colorectal cancer rates are declining rapidly overall in the United States, but increasing among young adults. In fact, compared with Americans born in 1950, young adults born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer.

While experts are unsure what is causing the uptick, the findings raise questions about risk factors and current screening measures.

David Stein, MD, chair of the Division of Colorectal Surgery in the College of Medicine, weighed in on what might be causing colon and rectal cancers in patients in their twenties and thirties, and how to recognize these diseases.

What could be contributing to the rise in colorectal cancers in young adults?
Although there is no clear answer, many believe the increase in obesity may be contributing to the increased incidence of cancer. Obesity does increase the risk of colon carcinogenesis and is pro-inflammatory. With childhood obesity on the rise, it may be that we are seeing those adults who had childhood obesity developing cancer earlier.

Does this trend worry or surprise you?
It is worrisome, as there could be environmental factors causing this as well. With the current guidelines for screening, we may be missing significant numbers of people with colon cancer or polyps at a the younger age. That being said, it is still a small incidence of the overall picture. The overall numbers of colorectal cancer are decreasing.

What do these trends mean for people under age 50? Should young people start getting colonoscopies?
Current guidelines suggest screening at age 50 unless there are specific risk factors. If someone has a family history, genetic predisposition or any symptoms of blood in the stool, abdominal pain or change in bowel habits, they should have a diagnostic colonoscopy.

What are the early signs and symptoms of colorectal cancers?
There are no early signs or symptoms of colorectal cancer. Following your doctor’s recommendations is important. In addition, there are tests available in pharmacies to look for hidden blood in the stool. These tests are simple and can be done at home. It is a low cost but effective way to screen.

How treatable are colorectal cancers?
Patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer have excellent outcomes when it is caught early.  Most patients are cured of this disease. As mentioned, following screening guidelines is important and any symptoms should be brought to your physician’s attention.

How can young people lower their risk?
Eat a diet high in fiber, with lots of fruits and vegetables, and exercise regularly. There is some evidence that aspirin reduces the risk of colon polyps, so a daily aspirin can be discussed with your physician.

For news media inquiries, contact Lauren Ingeno at lingeno@drexel.edu or 215.895.2614.

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