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You may need a colonoscopy earlier than you think

Colorectal cancer, or cancer that starts in the colon or rectum, is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women in the U.S. And it’s the third most common cancer among women and men combined.

About 90 percent of people diagnosed are age 50 and older, so it may be hard to believe that cases of colorectal cancer are on the rise among young and middle-aged adults – but they are, and at an alarming rate.

According to a study conducted by American Cancer Society researchers, cases of colon and rectal cancer have been increasing by one to two percent each year among adults ages 20 to 39. “This increase is alarming to researchers, because cases had been decreasing in decades prior,” says Dr. Duane Deivert, gastroenterologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Outpatient Specialty Center.

Even more alarming, researchers say that adults younger than 55 are 58 percent more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage colorectal cancer than older people, mainly due to delayed follow-up of symptoms because young people and their healthcare providers aren’t often thinking cancer.

“Without routine screening, colorectal cancers are typically caught in advanced stages when they’re difficult to treat,” says Dr. Deivert. “The recommended age to begin routine screenings is 50 but if you have a family history of colorectal cancer, you may need to be screened sooner.”

Because of the increasing incidence of colorectal cancer in young adults, the American Cancer Society has advocated to lower the screening age to 45. The best thing to do is talk to your doctor to see if an earlier screening is right for you.

The good news: when caught early, colorectal cancer is very treatable. So, let’s take a look at potential symptoms and how you can lower your risk.

What are symptoms of colon and rectal cancer?

Many symptoms of colorectal cancer can also be caused by conditions that aren’t cancer. However, if you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor to find the cause:

  • A change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea, constipation, a change in the consistency of your stool that lasts for more than a few days
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
  • Persistent cramping, gas or abdominal pain
  • Feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness or fatigue

“Many people with colorectal cancer don’t experience symptoms until the late stages of the disease,” says Dr. Deivert. “That’s why early detection and prevention are key.”

How to prevent colon and rectal cancer

Get screened

Most colorectal cancers start as an abnormal growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum, called a polyp. Regular screenings can help detect polyps, so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. “There are several types of screening tests for colorectal cancer, including colonoscopy and at-home screening tests,” says Dr. Deivert. “Talk with your doctor about which one is right for you.”

Make lifestyle changes to lower your risk

As with many cancers, making changes to your everyday life can make a big impact in lowering your risk of colorectal cancer. Here’s what our specialists say:

  • Eat your fruits and veggies. Be sure to include a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. “These foods contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, which may play a role in preventing colorectal cancer,” says Dr. Deivert. Avoiding these 3 foods can also help.
  • Keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum. If you drink alcohol, keep it to no more than one drink per day for women and two for men.
  • Stop smoking. If you smoke, talk to your doctor for options to help you quit.
  • Move your body. Try to get at least 30 minutes of light to moderate exercise in on most days. If you have any health issues, talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Talk to you doctor about your weight. He or she can help determine what’s best for you.

“The important takeaway is that young people can and do get colorectal cancer,” states Dr. Deivert. “Talking to your doctor about your family history and potential symptoms could possibly save your life.” 

Duane Deivert, MD, is a gastoenterologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Outpatient Specialty Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or other risk factors, talk with your doctor to see if early colonoscopy screenings are right for you.