From Kurt P. Leuenberger, MD, medical oncologist and hematologist at OHC

March 24, 2021

According to the National Cancer Institute, since the 1990’s, the rate of colorectal cancer has more than doubled among young adults. Moreover, American Cancer Society research has found that people younger than 55 are 58% more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage disease than older adults. Colorectal cancer is highly preventable and very treatable when detected early. And, screening, diagnosis, and treatment are getting more effective.

Colorectal cancer, also called colon or rectal cancer, is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. This year, approximately 150,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer.

We still do not have a definitive cause for the increase in early-onset colorectal cancer, but lifestyle may be a contributing factor. Americans have a more sedentary lifestyle and being overweight or obese increases your risk for colorectal cancer. There is significant evidence to suggest that an unhealthy diet could be the cause of colorectal cancer in younger adults. A healthy diet should have plenty of fruits, vegetables, and fiber, with little processed meat and fat. Drinking alcohol and smoking increase cancer risk at any age.

Of course, the same risk factors we’ve identified for older adults are applicable to those under age 50, but there could be a set of unique risk factors, like the environment, that researchers have not yet identified. Some scientists are exploring the link to bacteria that reside in the gut. There are certain bacteria that aid the growth and spread of colorectal cancer. Diet, obesity, exercise, and some drugs, like antibiotics, affect gut bacteria.

Oftentimes, younger adults ignore their symptoms. When the cancer is detected at a later stage, it is more difficult to treat. Any adult experiencing signs or symptoms of colon cancer should discuss them immediately with their healthcare provider.

Screening Saves Lives

My OHC colleagues and I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting screened for colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates among older adults have declined, largely as a result of screening. In fact, over 60 percent of deaths from colorectal cancer could be avoided with screening.

In response to the increase in colorectal cancer in younger Americans, the American Cancer Society has changed its screening guidelines and now recommends all individuals begin screening at age 45. Through screening, doctors can find abnormalities, like polyps, that may be precursors to cancer.

People at a higher risk should discuss screening at an earlier age with their physician. The earlier the disease is detected, the better chance the individual has for a successful outcome.

Many people are hesitant to get screened through a visualization test like a colonoscopy because the test is invasive. For those patients, other screening methods, such as stool-based tests and virtual colonoscopies, may be more attractive options. There is no one test that is right for every patient, so discuss options with your physician.

Promising Treatment Options

OHC cancer specialists are the region’s leading experts in the treatment of adult cancers. We offer patients hope by recommending them for clinical trials so that they can take advantage of the latest therapies. Some of these include new targeted therapies, or immunotherapies that target the ways that tumor cells avoid the immune system.

While screening is critical to early diagnosis, some patients present with advanced cancer that has already spread. OHC currently has three clinical trials for those who have not responded to treatment or who have advanced disease. These leading-edge treatment options offer patients a more positive outlook.

Another tool that OHC provides to its patients is genetic screening. Knowing your family history is important. About one in five younger patients with colon cancer has a genetic reason that increases their risk. OHC offers a Genetic Risk Evaluation and Testing Program (GREAT) that provides testing and counseling to help people determine their risk for developing cancer and if that risk is a result of a disease-related gene condition. And, you don’t have to be a patient of OHC to use the program.

Knowing Your Body Can Save Your Life

Colon Cancer Awareness Month prompts us to be mindful of disease risk factors and healthy lifestyle habits. Know colorectal cancer symptoms and discuss these and appropriate screening with your healthcare provider. When detected early, colorectal cancer is highly treatable.

To discuss your symptoms or risk factors with an OHC cancer expert, inquire about screening, or request a second opinion, visit or call 1-888-649-4800.

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