Colorectal cancer was once considered a disease for people over 50. Not anymore.
“Young people are getting it and they’re getting it at increasing rates,” Director of the University of South Carolina’s Center for Colon Cancer Research Frank Berger said.
Although the incidence of colorectal cancer increases after age 50, researchers are finding there’s been an increase in diagnoses for patients below that age. Berger called it a “big concern.”
“All of the focus for screening has been on people over 50 and so what we’ve noticed is the incidence and mortality from colorectal cancer, primarily because of screening and earlier detection, has gone down in people over 50,” he said. “In people under 50, including people in their 20s 30s and 40s, the incidences are still a relatively small fraction of the total. But it’s going up. It’s pretty much doubled over the last 10 or 20 years and we’re very concerned about this. We do not know why it’s going up.”
Based on current research, Berger said there are theories it could be an entirely different type of disease.
“It takes a while to diagnose colorectal cancer in a young person because it’s just not on the radar screen of most primary care physicians and so young people get diagnosed fairly late and so, therefore, they’re diagnosed with a more advanced disease,” he said.
Berger and his colleagues are trying to inform primary care physicians about the growing diagnoses in younger ages so those physicians can check for it if a patient complains of symptoms: chronic abdominal cramps, blood in stool, changes in bowel habits, chronic constipation or diarrhea.
Berger said people also should be aware if members of their family have had colon cancer.
Nationwide, 140,000 people over age 50 are newly diagnosed with colon cancer each year. Annually about 50,000 people die. About 15,000 patients younger than 50 are annually diagnosed.
In South Carolina, about 2,200 over-50 individuals are diagnosed each year with colon cancer, leading to 800 deaths. About 100-200 people younger than 50 are diagnosed each year in the state, Berger said.
“Our center is now dedicated to trying to understand colorectal cancer and we’re looking at the specific strategies we’re taking is we’re looking at what kind of exposures people have when they’re very young,” he continued. “Exposures to antibiotics, diets and those things which we think may be driving the higher risk for colon cancer when they’re in their 20’s,” he said. “There’s a lot of work going on around the country because it’s a significant problem and it’s predicted to get worse unless we do something about it. That’s driving the research.”