Because it’s the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, colorectal cancer awareness is emphasized among people age 50 and older, the age when physicians encourage everyone to get a colonoscopy, the gold-standard screening exam for the disease.
Yet research shows the frequency of colon cancer is rising among people in their 40s and younger. Physicians are not encouraging 20- and 30-year-olds to book cancer screenings today. But everyone should be aware of the symptoms of colorectal cancer, as well as their own family history.
“There is a slight uptick in cases in younger people, but not a rise in death rate from the disease. Certain factors, including obesity and sedentary lifestyle, may be behind the increase in reported cases. Early diagnosis – in the 30s, for example – can be a good thing, because it then can be treated,” said Steve Condron, MD, FACP, MHES, a gastroenterologist at Avera Medical Group Gastroenterology.
Colonoscopy remains the best approach for anyone who wants to get a clean bill of health for their colon and minimize potential risk, Condron said.
“All screening exams – and there are several – will allow you and your physician to rule out colon cancer. The colonoscopy is the preferred test for several reasons,” he said. “Among its advantages is the fact it lets us look directly at the intestinal lining. If polyps are found, they can be removed immediately.”
Condron explained that polyps are small growths and typically benign. Some polyps have the potential to grow into precancerous tissue, or in some cases, cancer. That’s why they are removed when the test is conducted. The typical colonoscopy schedule begins at age 50, and then once every 10 years, depending on results. But there are several factors that could lead to having colon screenings done sooner.
“When a primary member of your family, such as a parent or sibling, has had colorectal cancer or advanced polyps, we recommend completing a screening, specifically colonoscopy, sooner,” Condron said. At any age, colonoscopy may be recommended if troubling symptoms exist.
Symptoms of colon cancer may include:
- A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool that lasts for more than a few days
- Blood in the toilet, which may make stools dark in color, almost like tar
- Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so
- Pain, tenderness or cramping in the lower abdomen
- Rectal bleeding, unintended weight loss or weakness and fatigue
Oftentimes, conditions other than colon cancer cause these issues, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution and mention these symptoms to a doctor.
“It’s always better to be safe – to have a colonoscopy and negative results, instead of waiting too long and facing a life-threatening cancer,” Condron said. “That’s true whether you’re a millennial or just turned 50. Take this cancer seriously, work with your physician and together you can take steps to avoid it.”
By Jarret Bias
Jarret Bias is a writer/editor with Avera Health. A South Dakota native, he has worked as a journalist in the Midwest since 1999 and with Avera since 2014.