Op-Ed: Take Steps to Detect Colorectal Cancer Early

Op-Ed: Take Steps to Detect Colorectal Cancer Early

It’s no myth: Colorectal cancer is increasing in younger adults

Colorectal cancer, a broad term ascribed to cancer of the colon or rectum, is the third most common form of cancer diagnosed in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates that 150,000 Americans — one in every 23 men and one in every 25 women — will be diagnosed with the disease this year. While it is more prevalent among older adults, the rate has risen steadily among younger adults since the mid-1980s.

About 12% of all cases will occur in individuals under age 50. Therefore, it is crucial to identify and dispel myths associated with the disease as it pertains to the younger population.

Myth: Younger adults are not at risk for developing colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer has become the leading cause of cancer death for Americans ages 20 to 49, according to the National Cancer Institute. From 2012 to 2016, new cases increased 2.2% a year for Americans younger than age 50. While researchers have yet to link a specific cause to this rise in cases, the Colorectal Cancer Alliance is driving awareness, education, advocacy, and research funding.

In response, last May the U.S. Preventive Services Taskforce, an independent panel of top primary care and prevention experts, lowered its recommended age for colorectal cancer screening from 50 to 45. As part of the healthcare and oncology community, I am calling on younger adults to understand their risks, pay attention to their bodies, and get screened.

Myth: Only people who are at high risk for developing colorectal cancer should receive regular screenings.

Screening is one of the most effective ways to combat colorectal cancer in younger and middle-aged adults, and it increases a person’s chances of survival. Those diagnosed have a 90% five-year survival rate following early detection and treatment.

While various screening methods exist, the gold standard continues to be a colonoscopy, specifically an optical colonoscopy. This allows healthcare professionals to view the entire colon and both detect and remove polyps in the same procedure. Removing polyps before they turn into cancer is not possible through other screening methods, such as a stool DNA test or imaging. These tests must also be performed more frequently and can miss polyps that would otherwise be identified during a colonoscopy.

Younger adults with a family or personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps; hereditary factors, such as familial adenomatous polyposis of Lynch syndrome; or inflammatory bowel disease, are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer and should talk to their doctors about screenings regardless of age.

While regular screenings are key to prevention, unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic led to a rapid decline in colorectal cancer screenings, up to 79% during the early stages of the pandemic, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Myth: There are no means to prevent colorectal cancer.

Though some health factors are beyond control in limiting the risk of cancer, you can take active measures to prevent the disease, including maintaining a healthy weight. Obesity greatly increases the risk of colorectal cancer, especially in men.

Effective daily precautions for preventing colorectal cancer include: limiting intake of red meats and processed meats, restricting alcohol consumption, and avoiding smoking.

Pandemic or not, it is essential for people to continue regular checkups and necessary screenings. Most health insurance plans cover the costs of colorectal cancer screenings.

Key takeaways

  • Be proactive. Talk with your physician about a plan to promote good colorectal health. Know your risk factors, and receive  screenings as appropriate.
  • Don’t ignore red flags. These include a change in bowel habits, the feeling your bowels don’t completely empty, blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss, or loss of appetite.
  • If diagnosed, seek specialized care. If you’re diagnosed with colorectal cancer, don’t lose hope. Learn about your options and advances in treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and monoclonal antibody therapies.