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Colon cancer is no longer a condition confined to older generations; an upsurge in cases among young adults is causing concern. Are you wondering why and how to confront this issue? This article dives into the realities behind the increasing incidence of colon cancer in young adults, equipping you with the knowledge to understand risk factors and identify preventative measures.

Key Takeaways

  • Early-onset colorectal cancer is on the rise globally, affecting individuals under 50 with higher mortality rates among the young; factors include genetics, lifestyle, and environmental influences.

  • Identifying specific causes of colorectal cancer is challenging due to long development times and multiple influencing factors, although diet, physical activity, obesity, environmental factors, and gut microbiome changes are potential contributors.

  • Screening recommendations for colorectal cancer now start at age 45, and early detection through colonoscopy is critical, alongside adopting preventive measures such as dietary changes and regular physical activity.

Exploring the Increase of Early Onset Colorectal Cancer

Young adults discussing colorectal cancer trends

The statistics regarding colorectal cancer diagnoses in young adults is disconcerting. Close to 18,000 individuals under 50 are expected to receive a colorectal cancer diagnosis in the U.S. this year alone, contributing to the rising number of colorectal cancer cases. This upward trend is not exclusive to the United States. Globally, several countries, including:

  • Canada

  • New Zealand

  • Australia

  • parts of Europe and Asia

Studies have reported similar trends of early-onset colorectal cancer and early onset colorectal cancers.

The repercussions of this escalating incidence are undoubtedly severe. Young adults diagnosed with colorectal cancer are at a higher risk of mortality, with a five-year survival rate of approximately 49% for those aged 35 and under. This statistic, provided by the American Cancer Society, underlines the urgency of raising awareness and dispelling misconceptions about this disease.

Certain demographics, including Black people, are more likely to develop the disease at a young age than White people. Millennials are also at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer compared to those born in 1950.

Colorectal cancer, a term that includes both colon and rectal cancers, is characterized by uncontrolled cell growth in the colon or rectum. The factors contributing to its rising prevalence in young adults, particularly rectal cancer, are intricate and remain partially misunderstood, but they are likely associated with a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

The Search for Causes Behind Colorectal Cancer in Younger Adults

Deciphering the causes behind the surge in colorectal cancer among younger adults is a complex challenge. Several factors, including:

  • dietary patterns

  • lack of physical activity

  • obesity

  • exposure to environmental chemicals

have been suggested as possible contributors. Other potential culprits being investigated include increases in childhood obesity and inflammatory bowel disease.

While hereditary factors such as genetic conditions like Lynch Syndrome contribute to the onset of colorectal cancer, they account for only 10% to 20% of cases. This suggests that inherited factors alone do not explain the majority of these cancers in younger adults.

The gut microbiome, the community of microorganisms living in our intestines, may also play a significant role in colorectal cancer rates among younger adults. Alterations in the microbiome might be associated with the disease’s increasing occurrence in this demographic.

The difficulty in identifying specific causes stems from the protracted development time of cancer from polyps, which may span 10 to 15 years. During this time, individuals are exposed to various lifestyle factors, dietary habits, medications, and weight fluctuations, making it difficult to identify precise causative factors. This complexity underscores the importance of ongoing research into the molecular drivers of colorectal cancer in young adults, which may lead to more personalized screening and treatment strategies.

Recognizing Symptoms and When to Seek Help

Doctor consulting a young adult about colorectal cancer symptoms

Identifying the symptoms of colorectal cancer is a fundamental step towards early detection. Young adults should watch out for the following symptoms:

  • Changes in bowel habits

  • Rectal bleeding

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Fatigue

  • Blood in the stool

Despite these clear warning signs, young adults often postpone seeking medical help. This delay can be perilous, as it can permit the cancer to progress, complicating treatment and diminishing the chances of a successful outcome.

The reluctance among young adults to seek help can be attributed to the ease with which these symptoms can be mistaken for less serious conditions. Young people often overlook the possibility of colorectal cancer, assuming it’s a disease that affects only older individuals. It’s crucial to overcome this misconception, and young adults experiencing symptoms should promptly seek medical attention, consider undergoing a colonoscopy if symptoms persist, and if necessary, seek a second or third opinion.

Screening Guidelines and Recommendations

Screening is an effective weapon in the battle against colorectal cancer. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently lowered the recommended age to begin colon cancer screenings from 50 to 45, a recognition of the increasing incidence of the disease among younger individuals.

The colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening. It allows doctors to directly inspect the colon and remove any potentially pre-cancerous polyps detected during the procedure.

For young adults, particularly those with a familial history of colorectal cancer, opting for a colonoscopy is a sensible measure. Precision screening, which customizes the screening approach based on individual risk factors, can also be beneficial.

If a colonoscopy identifies precancerous polyps, it’s advisable to have them safely removed during the procedure, as it can effectively prevent colon cancer.

Strategies for Prevention in the Younger Age Group

Healthy lifestyle choices for colorectal cancer prevention

Prevention invariably surpasses cure, and colorectal cancer aligns with this principle. Young adults can adopt measures to lower their risk of contracting the disease. One such step is making dietary changes. Recommended dietary changes include:

  • Increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables

  • Reducing intake of sweet snacks, candies, red and processed meats

  • Ensuring adequate intake of whole grains, calcium-rich dairy products, and vitamin D

These dietary changes can help lower the risk of colorectal cancer.

Retaining a healthy weight forms another key strategy. Research shows that being overweight or obese in adulthood is linked to a higher likelihood of colorectal cancer.

In addition to dietary changes and weight management, regular physical activity is advised. Avoiding risk factors like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can also help reduce the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer.

Navigating Treatment Options for Young Colorectal Cancer Patients

Once diagnosed with colorectal cancer, young patients have a range of treatment options. Surgical interventions, such as hemicolectomy, partial colectomy, segmental resection, and local excision, can be employed. In certain cases, a colostomy may be conducted, where the bowel is connected to an opening in the abdomen for the passage of stool into a disposable bag.

Chemotherapy frequently forms part of the plan to treat colorectal cancer, especially for young colorectal cancer patients, aiding in tumor reduction and destruction of cancer cells.

Alongside medical treatments, supportive care is a critical component of the treatment process. For instance, an oncology patient navigator can offer help with financial issues, transportation, family matters, and other non-medical concerns that may surface during the treatment phase.


Colorectal cancer is no longer a disease confined to older adults. The increasing incidence among young people is a concerning trend that demands our attention. Understanding the potential causes, recognizing the symptoms, and knowing when to seek help are essential for early detection. Regular screening, particularly for high-risk individuals, along with lifestyle modifications can play a significant role in preventing the disease.

Despite the challenges, it’s important to remember that colorectal cancer is treatable, especially when detected early. As researchers continue to uncover the causes and develop new treatments, our best defense remains awareness, early detection, and intervention.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you get colon cancer in your 20s?

Yes, cases of colon cancer are increasing in younger adults, so it is possible to get colon cancer in your 20s. Screening for colon cancer is not typically recommended for individuals in their 20s, but it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and discuss any concerns with a healthcare provider.

What is the mortality rate for colon cancer by age?

The mortality rate for colon cancer varies by age, with a decrease in deaths per 100,000 persons from colorectal cancer observed among different age groups from 1999 to 2019. This trend was particularly notable in persons aged 55–64 years, 65–74 years, and 75–84 years.

What are the first signs of having colon cancer?

The first signs of having colon cancer include various symptoms you should be aware of. If you experience any symptoms, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional promptly.

What does colon cancer pain feel like?

Colon cancer pain can feel like intermittent crampy sensations in the abdomen, although some patients may not experience any pain at all.

Is colorectal cancer becoming more common in young adults?

Yes, the incidence of colorectal cancer is increasing among young adults globally, not just in the U.S., but also in countries like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and Asia. This trend is concerning and requires attention.

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