Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Fight Colorecta
If you think you’re too young to get colorectal cancer, consider this: About 20,000 people in the United States under age 50 will be diagnosed this year. and an estimate 3,750 young adults will die.
“Colorectal cancer progresses rapidly to diagnosis at a younger age,” conclude the authors of a study from the American Cancer Society report published this month. Since the mid-1990s, cases in people under 50 have increased by around 50%. It is one of deadliest cancers in this age group.
“The moment I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer scared me,” says Shawna Brown, a labor organizer in Stockton, California. She was then in her late forties and was completely shocked. “I had no signs or symptoms,” she said.
Brown had received a drug test kit in the mail from her health care provider, but she didn’t think it was urgent and frankly, it put her off. The test required her to collect a stool sample and return it: “It didn’t seem hygienic,” Brown recalled thinking. “So I skipped the test.” At the time, many people were unaware that in 2018 the American Cancer Society had lowered recommended age to start screening from 50 to 45 years old.
Kaiser Permanente/Shawna Brown
Eventually, during a routine doctor’s appointment, Brown’s nurse practitioner at Kaiser Permanente persuaded her to get screened, known as the FIT test, which can detect traces of blood in the stool. It came back positive, so Brown had a colonoscopy and doctors found a cancerous polyp. Then she underwent surgery to cut out a small part of her colon and luckily the cancer did not spread beyond that.
She is now a proponent of screening. “It definitely saved my life,” Brown said. Two years later, she remains cancer-free.
Millennials and Generation Z are also at risk. Food can play a role
Statistically, people in their 20s and 30s are much less likely to get colorectal cancer than people 50 and older, but cases in this age group are on the rise. They are expected to increase by 90% by 2030, Dr. Kimmie Ngwho directs the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at the Dana Farber Cancer Center.
Ng says researchers are evaluating a range of factors that could be fueling the rise in colon cancer, ranging from a lack of Vitamin Dthe complicated role of microbiotato the effect of high red meat consumption and the role of food in general.
A study published in 2021 found that women who drank more than two sugary drinks a day had more than double the risk of early colorectal cancer, compared to women who drank less than one drink. And a published study this month suggests that people who eat lots of fresh, minimally processed foods are less likely to develop colon cancer, compared to people who eat lots of ultra-processed foods – including processed meats, sweets , soft drinks and prepared meals.
And a healthy diet likely plays a role in preventing recurrence in people who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, a study published in 2019 find. The researchers followed about 1,000 patients who had been treated for stage 3 colon cancer. They found that people who ate a lot of foods that can raise insulin, such as white bread, sugary drinks and snacks transformed, were approximately twice as likely to have a recurrence or die colon cancer, compared to those who consumed the least of these foods.
Waking up at 35
When Deondre Williams, of Covington, Georgia, first saw blood in his stool, he thought he had hemorrhoids, so he postponed his visit to a doctor. At the time, he felt fine and weighed 240 pounds. “I was solid,” Williams said. “I thought I was healthy, because I was training regularly.”
But at 35, he had colorectal cancer. After being diagnosed, Williams had surgery and spent months of recovery.
Deondre Williams/For NPR
Now he’s back coaching football and speaking at community events about the importance of colorectal screening. And he made a big change in his diet. “I don’t eat a lot of processed foods anymore,” he says.
He says, looking back, he suspects his diet may have played a part. Growing up, her father was a truck driver and her family didn’t take the time to cook meals at home. “Everything was take-out,” he explains. Prepared and processed foods were convenient. But now he eats more fresh produce and less bacon, sausages and snack foods – he also avoids sugar and sodas.
The good news is that colorectal cancer is very treatable when caught early. So what can you do to protect yourself? Here are five strategies to guide you.
1. Know the signs and symptoms
Some of the first colorectal cancer symptoms may include blood in your stools, change in bowel habits, weight loss for no known reason, feeling bloated or full and tired. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about getting tested.
“We are seeing an increase in early-onset colorectal cancer across all ethnic and racial groups,” Ng says. “So everyone should be aware of the symptoms.”
2. Don’t Let 45 Get Away
Anyone 45 and older should be screened for colorectal cancer. If your health care provider sends a stool sample test in the mail, don’t ignore it. And if you’re younger, your doctor may recommend earlier screening if you have a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps.
3. Tell your family about your cancer history
Ask your parents and siblings if they’ve ever had polyps or been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. First-degree relatives (siblings, parents, or children) of people who have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer should begin screening ten years earlier than the age at which the family member was diagnosed, Ng says. So if your father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at age 45, you should be screened at age 35. Talk to your health care provider if you have a family history.
4. Choose your screening option
You don’t necessarily have to undergo the dreaded colonoscopy. There are several other effective screening options. “Screening has never been easier,” says TR Levin, gastroenterologist at Kaiser Permanente.
Screening methods include colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy (a less invasive scope to assess part of the colon), or stool-based tests, usually done at home and mailed back to a lab.
A commonly used stool test is the fecal-immunochemical test, known as FIT test that can detect small amounts of blood in the stool, and is usually done annually. (This video guides you throughout the process.)
Another option is a stool DNA test, such as Cologuard – which can detect both blood and DNA changes that may come from a cancerous or pre-cancerous polyp in the stool. People who choose this option are generally advised to take the test every three years.
“We have a lot of choices and people should talk to their doctor about which one is easiest for them to do,” Levin says.
Generally, if you’re at higher risk for colon cancer due to a family history, colonoscopy is recommended, says Dr. Douglas Corley of the Kaiser Permanente. If you’re not at high risk, he says, you have to choose which test you can do, whether it’s a colonoscopy or one of the less invasive and safe stool-based tests. more frequent.
Still don’t know how to proceed? Take this personalized recommendation quiz developed by the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. Include your age and the symptoms you are experiencing and it will help you determine what is best for you.
5. Change your diet and increase your physical activity
“Colorectal cancer is one of the cancers most strongly linked to diet and lifestyle,” says Ng.
Although there are still many unanswered questions about the causes of the rise in colorectal cancer, there is evidence showing that a healthy diet can be protective. Studies suggest a The Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer. And there’s growing evidence that a diet high in highly processed foods and sugary drinks can be harmful.