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Millennials and Colon Cancer

Posted 7/3/2017 by UHBlog

New research shows a disturbing rise in colon cancer cases among young adults. We can help you know if you’re at risk.

Millennials and Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is not something that historically has been on the radar screen for most 20- or 30-something-year-old men.

“If they have symptoms, like rectal bleeding, most young people tend to blow it off, thinking it’s probably the result of hemorrhoids,” says gastroenterologist Gregory Cooper, MD.

Instead of seeing a doctor, many millennials decide instead to lay off the weights at the gym.

Yet a recent study, led by the American Cancer Society, shows that colorectal cancer is much more prevalent in millennials than previously thought. Researchers found that young people born in 1990 now have double the risk of having colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer compared to people born in 1950.

According to Dr. Cooper, no one is exactly sure what’s causing the rise in rates among the younger generation.

“Obesity is probably the biggest culprit, but I think there’s more to the story than that,” he says. “I would suspect that some sort of environmental exposures are also a factor in the uptick of diagnoses.”

But the increase in the number of cases means that both patients and doctors need to take symptoms – like rectal bleeding – more seriously.

If you notice any of these signs, Dr. Cooper advises making an appointment with your doctor.

  • Bleeding - “It can be blood on the toilet tissue, blood in the bowl or blood in the stools,” he says. “Really any sort of bleeding is not normal.”
  • Changes in your bathroom patterns - “If, for instance, you are someone who normally goes once a day and all of a sudden you start going three times a day, that should get evaluated,” Dr. Cooper says.
  • Changes in the appearance of your stools - “If you normally have a stool that’s of a pretty wide diameter and all of a sudden it comes out pencil thin, that’s another red flag,” he says.
  • Abdominal pain - “Any unexplained pain should always be checked out,” Dr. Cooper says.

The good news is that if colon cancer is caught early, it has a very high cure rate.

“If the cancer is limited to the bowel and you have surgery – which is the normal treatment – the survival rate is well over 90 percent,” he says.

And there are things you can do to help lower your risk of getting colon cancer, he says. Dr. Cooper recommends these six tips to protect yourself:

  1. Stop smoking. “If someone’s a smoker, they are at much higher risk of developing colon cancer than nonsmokers,” he says.
  2. Limit your alcohol to one drink a day for women, two drinks a day for men.
  3. Maintain a healthy weight. “Obesity is a big risk factor for colon cancer,” Dr. Cooper says.
  4. Exercise a few times a week.
  5. Learn your family history. Genetics puts you at a higher risk of getting colon cancer, and in order to get the best care, doctors need to know your history.
    “It’s not everyone’s favorite topic of conversation, but it’s important to know if your parents or siblings have had colon cancer or even pre-cancerous polyps, which grow into colon cancer,” he says.
  6. Get screened. The American Cancer Society recommends people start getting colonoscopies at age 50.
    “But if you have a relative with colon cancer, you should start getting screenings at around age 40,” Dr. Cooper says.

Gregory Cooper, MD, is a gastroenterologist and Program Director of Gastroenterology at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, and Co-Program Leader for Cancer Prevention and Control at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Cooper or any other doctor online.

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