Colon cancer cases are increasing in patients under 50

UPMC Susquehanna Digestive Disease Center

Dr. Vivek Kumar

Age fifty is the age when doctors recommend a first colonoscopy for most individuals with no family history or other risk factors for colon cancer. The procedure detects polyps and other abnormalities, and they can often be removed immediately. This practice has helped decrease colon cancer deaths in the 50+ population, but now doctors are noting an increase in colon cancer incidence in individuals younger than age 50. Though the reasons for this increase are not yet known, here’s what you can do to be proactive with your colon health:

Know your history. Getting a detailed family history may be easier said than done because family members are often reluctant to discuss their bowel habits and health. You want to know if your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins had colon cancer, colon polyps or any other gastrointestinal condition such as Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease. Casting a wider net of relatives is important because a cluster of genetic mutations that may lead to colon cancer can run in a family.

Discuss adjusting your screening age. If you are African American or have a family history of colon cancer or other digestive issues discuss this with your doctor. Your first colonoscopy may need to be scheduled at age 45 or younger to give you the greatest chance of preventing colon cancer.

Don’t flush the evidence. Pay attention to your bowel habits and your bowels. By keeping track of what’s “normal” for you, you will be more likely to notice if there’s a sudden change. In addition, note changes in the color, shape, frequency or consistency of your bowels that continue for more than a few days. Any time there is blood in your stools it should be mentioned to your doctor and investigated.

Eat more colon-friendly foods. Avoid highly processed foods and red meats. Fill up on foods high in natural fiber such as fruits and vegetables.

Get active. Physical activity is good for your digestive health. Aim to exercise at least 30 minutes each day.

Don’t smoke. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about finding a program or medicine that will help you quit.

Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is a risk factor for colon cancer and maintaining a healthy BMI can help reduce your risks for developing diabetes and high blood pressure, too.

Speak up. When you are young, your doctor may not be thinking about colon cancer, but don’t be afraid to bring it up as a possibility. And if you experience any rectal bleeding insist that it be investigated to determine the cause.

Have your colonoscopy with a trained gastroenterologist. No matter what your age, the colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for colon cancer screening. Younger patients in particular can have flat polyps which can be more challenging to detect and remove. Gastroenterologists have years of training, which along with good pre-colonoscopy preparation, can help them identify all kinds of polyps including the flat ones and accomplish complete removal during the procedure.

Know the warning signs of colorectal cancer. Rectal bleeding, bloody stools, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, digestive complaints, cramping or abdominal pain, changes in bathroom behavior (diarrhea, constipation, narrow stool) that lasts more than a few days, and also anemia (low red blood cell count) can all be caused by an array of conditions and diseases. They can also be signs of colon cancer and should be investigated without delay to determine the cause.

Dr. Vivek Kumar of UPMC Susquehanna Digestive Disease Center is certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology. He specializes in gastroenterology and colorectal services.