Colorectal cancer rates rising among young adults

December 16, 2021
Woman sitting on Bed and feeling pain in her stomach

Colorectal cancer has been rising sharply among young men and women since the 1990s. And the recent death of the Black Panther star, Chadwick Boseman, has thrown a spotlight on this troubling trend. Diagnosed with colon cancer at the young age of 39, he lost his fight with the disease at 43.

But why is this happening?

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women. According to the National Cancer Institute, colon and rectal cancer are rising rapidly among young adults. 

Experts aren’t sure what’s causing the spike among young adults. “We know that lifestyle factors, like obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise are known risk factors of colorectal cancer and may be partly responsible for the increase in younger adults.” says Rafayat Hossain, M.D. “But there may be other unique factors we don’t know about; and dietary habits, such as a diet low in fiber and high in processed foods & red meat, can also be a risk factor for colorectal cancer.” 

New recommendations for earlier screening

While a healthy lifestyle – at all ages -  is the first step in preventing colorectal cancer, like most cancers, early detection is key to effective treatment and survival. According to the American Cancer Society, if you are 45 years of age or older, now is the time to get colorectal cancer screening. Earlier, if you have a family history of the disease.

A colonoscopy is the most common and most thorough screening procedure for colorectal cancer. And if polyps are not present and there are no other risk factors, you won’t need to repeat a colonoscopy for five to 10 years. 

“At Riverside, we have several alternative screening options for colorectal cancer”, says Dr. Hossain.  Your primary physician can help you determine if a colonoscopy, fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or stool DNA test is the best colorectal cancer  screening option for you.”  Should the FIT test or stool DNA test be positive or abnormal, a colonoscopy would be needed.  Regardless of which screening option you choose, the most important thing is that you get screened for colorectal cancer.

What are the risk factors for colorectal cancer?

A risk factor is anything that can raise your chance of contracting a disease such as cancer. And having risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean you will get the disease. You can make changes in your lifestyle to reduce your risk, such as stop smoking. Other factors like a person’s age or family history cannot be changed. 

Risk factors that are within your control include:

  • Being overweight
  • Lack of exercise
  • Unhealthy diet 
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol overuse

Risk factors that you cannot control include:

  • Age
  • Personal history 
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBDS)
  • Family history 
  • Inherited gene mutation (rare)
Researchers are also looking into environmental factors as possible suspects to explain the increased rate in those under 50. Pesticides, water pollution, air pollution, and chemicals in the soil ultimately absorbed into our food system may be additional causes of early-onset colorectal cancers. 

Signs and symptoms

Most people don’t experience symptoms in the early stages of colorectal cancer. But if you have any of the below symptoms, take immediate action and talk to your doctor. And don’t assume you are too young. The most common symptoms include:

  • Cramping or abdominal belly pain
  • Constipation or diarrhea that lasts longer than a few days
  • Blood in the stool or dark stools
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

The critical takeaway is that young people can get colon and rectal cancer. Pay attention to any signs and symptoms, especially if you have a chronic condition or a family history of colon or rectal cancer.

Talk with your primary care doctor and learn more about colorectal cancer and your risk factors. To schedule your colonoscopy at a Riverside Health location near you, visit or call 757-316-5777.

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