Cancer Awareness

Colon Cancer Rates in Younger Adults Are Rising

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

When Lynette Sutkowi, D.O., was 41 years old, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Like most people her age, the diagnosis came as a shock. After all, only about 10 percent of all colorectal diagnoses are in people under the age of 50, according to the American Cancer Society.

“My first thought was, ‘This can’t be happening to me,’” says Dr. Sutkowi, a cancer specialist at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital. “Not only did I feel like I was too young for this, but being in the field of medical oncology, it seemed ironic.”

Recently, however, colon cancer rates are rising in younger people, especially those born around 1990. In fact, a 2017 study led by American Cancer Society (ACS) researchers revealed that new cases of colon cancer and rectal cancer are occurring at an increasing rate among young and middle-aged adults throughout the U.S.

That statistic is part of the reason why the ACS and other cancer experts now recommend that for those with an average risk (no family history of colon cancer or other risk factors) colonoscopy screenings take place at age 45, rather than the previous recommended age of 50 — a change the ACS officially announced in May.

The reasons behind the rising rates still aren’t fully understood, but some factors might include obesity, multiple vitamins, and other dietary supplements. Regardless, here’s what Dr. Sutkowi says younger patients should be aware of to keep themselves cancer-free.

The Facts About Young Adults And Colon Cancer

Although about 90 percent of colorectal cancer diagnoses occur after the age of 50, incidences of colon cancer in younger people are becoming more common.  The 2017 ACS study found that for adults ages 20 to 39, colon cancer incidence rates increased by one percent to two percent per year through 2013. In adults 40 to 54, rates increased by 0.5 percent to one percent per year from the mid-1990s through 2013.

What’s more?  The death rate for colorectal cancer among adults ages 20 to 54 has been increasing since the mid-2000s — an alarming trend considering colon cancer is one of the most fatal types. (The 5-year survival rate for colorectal cancer when it’s diagnosed at an early stage is 90 percent, however, so it can be very treatable. Currently,  there are more than one million colon cancer survivors in the U.S. alone).

“The majority of patients that are being diagnosed in the younger population are at a more advanced stage when cancer is harder to treat,” Dr. Sutkowi says. And although colon cancer — the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. — has few obvious symptoms in earlier stages, there are still signs that the condition may be present, including:

  • A change in bowel habits like diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
  • Dark stools, or blood in the stool.
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Iron deficiency
  • Abnormal levels of hemoglobin

You Can Lower Your Risk Of Colon Cancer

Regardless of your age, it’s possible to lower your risk of colon cancer with a few common health measures. Dr. Sutkowi’s suggestions:

  • Maintain a healthy diet. Eating foods with lots of fiber (whole grains, broccoli, lentils, black beans, etc.) can help keep bowel movements regular.
  • Drink plenty of water. Water is essential for keeping your colon clean.
  • Exercise regularly. A 2009 study found that the most physically active individuals involved had a 24 percent lower risk of colon cancer than those who were the least physically active.
  • Get an annual physical.

“Most young people only go to a doctor if they’re sick,” Dr. Sutkowi says. “They don’t go to a doctor when they’re well. However, regular check-ups, especially those that include bloodwork, can allow patients and physicians to detect low iron levels or abnormal levels of hemoglobin — both of which can be signs of colon cancer.”

No matter what steps you take to lower your risk, Dr. Sutkowi suggests that to truly keep colon cancer at bay, the best things people can do are to pay attention to any changes in their bodies, trust their senses, and remain vigilant.

To find a doctor at Henry Ford or make an appointment, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Lynette Sutkowi is a medical oncologist, seeing patients at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital and Henry Ford Health Center – Shelby Township.