Being Well

Think Colon Cancer Is a 50+ Disease? It Isn’t.

Young adults are increasingly diagnosed with colon cancer. Paying attention to your body and reporting any unusual symptoms to your doctor are critical.

Colon cancer is not just a disease that affects older people. In fact, studies reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association show that rates of colorectal cancers are actually decreasing in those over the age of 50 and steadily increasing in young adults, particularly within the age range of 20 to 34.

Current guidelines recommend routine screening for colorectal cancers starting at age 50, or younger for at-risk individuals (to understand your risk level, ask your doctor). Risk factors aside, it is critical for presumably healthy young adults to start paying attention to their bodies with colon cancer incidence on the rise. According to the American Cancer Society, symptoms of colon cancer include inexplicable weight loss, fatigue, rectal bleeding, bloody or very dark stool and cramping. If you notice any changes in your bathroom habits, talk to your doctor.

Here are five more things for young adults to know about colon cancer.

1) Nutrition Is a Factor

Eat your veggies and whole grains. Foods that are high in fiber help keep your colon functioning at its best. Limit processed foods and reduce your sugar intake. Eat meat products (especially the processed stuff like bacon and hot dogs) in moderation.

2) Working out Works

Not only does regular physical activity make you feel good and keep you healthier in general, it can also lower your risk of colon cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

3) Family History is Key

Survey your family for history of cancer diagnoses. If there is cancer in your family tree, you could be at risk. If there are colorectal cancers in your family, let your doctor know so you can be screened regularly for colon and other colorectal cancers.

According to the National Human Genome Institute, other colon conditions can increase your risk of cancer, so find out if any relatives have familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), also known as Lynch syndrome. If you or other family members have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, that can also play into your risk, no matter your age.

4) Screening Makes a Difference

According to the National Cancer Institute, there are a variety of tests that have been proven to reduce deaths from colorectal cancer. Screening tests include colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, high-sensitivity fecal occult blood tests and more. If you have weird symptoms or know of a family member who has or had colorectal disease, see your doctor.

5) What Happens in the Bathroom Matters

If you notice blood, changes in the color or size of your stool or pain when you go to the bathroom, these could be symptoms that you need to take seriously. Err on the side of caution: Even though there are many other things that could cause these changes to your bathroom habits, you should check in with your doctor. Screenings can catch cancer earlier, making it easier to treat. With more young people getting this disease, be open with your doctor and tell your friends to do so, too.

UVA Cancer Center offers screenings for colon cancer and genetic counseling for those who may be at risk.

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Kimberley Sirk
Kimberley Sirk