I’ve always paid close attention to my gut. So, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend regular screening for colon cancer beginning at age 50, I had my first colonoscopy when I was 31.
After month long bouts with anemia, constipation and bloating, my gut instinct told me something was wrong. My doctor agreed it was better to be safe and get screened early than to not know what was causing all the discomfort. It was unlikely, my doctor said, that I had colon cancer, but getting screened was the only way to know for sure.
Colon cancer is considered one of the most preventable but deadly illnesses; it’s the second leading cause of cancer death among men and women in the United States. Screening tests like colonoscopies can prevent cancer or detect it at an early stage, when treatment can be highly effective. Even with these well-known facts, few people get the recommended screening.
The CDC recommends that adults aged 50 to 75, get screened for colon cancer regularly. If you’re between 76 and 85, or are younger than 50 but have certain risk factors for colon cancer, it is recommended that you ask your doctor if you should be screened. With national recommendations putting off screening until one’s 50s, young people under the age of 50 rarely get screened at all.
Findings from a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute might encourage people to start getting screened, and sooner. The study found that while colorectal cancer rates are rapidly declining in older populations, they’re mysteriously rising among millennials and Gen Xers in the U.S. Based on current trends, researchers predict that by 2030 colon cancer incidence rates will increase by 90 percent for people aged 20 to 34 years and by 28 percent for people aged 35 to 49 years.
Yu-Xiao Yang, MD, MSCE, FACP, an associate professor of Gastroenterology at Penn Medicine says rising colorectal cancer rates among people my age could be due to poor eating habits, and possibly, a bit of laziness.
“It is plausible that the rising colon cancer incidence in the younger populations might be due to increased prevalence of behavioral risk factors such as obesity, diet (e.g., high red meat, low fiber diet) and lack of physical activity,” Yang says.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my struggle to fit more fiber in my diet and maintain a regular schedule at the gym, but it never occurred to me that those factors could be putting me at a higher risk for colon cancer.
But why the decrease in colon cancer rates among older populations? Could it be my grandma is eating and exercising more often than me?
Yang believes older individuals may have taken heed to screening recommendations in recent colon cancer awareness campaigns.
“From an epidemiological standpoint, changing trends in cancer incidence usually suggest a change in underlying causes (e.g., genetic or environmental) or the implementation of an effective preventive measure at the population level,” Yang says.
“Although the prevalence of the same risk factors has also been increasing in the older age groups, the effect of population-wide colon cancer screening in the older population might have been so overwhelming that it actually has led to an overall reduction in colon cancer risk.”
Most of my friends thought I was crazy to go through with the somewhat arduous process of prep for a colonoscopy. In the end, no cancerous polyps were found and I left the procedure with a note from my doc telling me to return for my next screening at age 50. “See you in 19 years!” she said.
Chances are, however, I could be seeing my doctor a little sooner than I thought. According to Yang, future research could lead to a slightly earlier age for recommended colon cancer screening. His advice to younger people like me: work on adopting a healthier lifestyle through diet and exercise.
“The trends underscore the need to conduct more research to understand the precise cause(s) of the rising risk in the younger age groups and to weight the risk and benefit balance of potentially shifting forward the age to initiate colon cancer screening,” Yang said.
“Although the risk has increased in the Gen Xers, we have to keep in mind that the absolute risk of colon cancer is still very low among the average 20-30-year-olds, certainly too low to justify the cost and risk of colonoscopy. So I think if the age cutoff is going to be shifted forward, it would likely only affect people who are close to the age of 50.”