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Causes and Prevention of Colorectal Cancer in Younger Patients

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Cooper Clinic Gastroenterologist Abram Eisenstein

A recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed rates of colon and rectal cancer are rising sharply among young and middle-aged Americans while continuing to decline for adults 55 and older. What is the cause of this change, and what measures should be put into place to prevent these instances? Cooper Clinic Gastroenterologist Abram Eisenstein, MD, explains the significance of this study and Cooper Clinic’s recommendations for prevention of colorectal cancer.

What the Study Says

The study looks at the number of new cases of colorectal cancers each year per 100,000 people. Currently about 47 out of 100,000 people are diagnosed with colon cancer annually. The overall number of colorectal cancer cases has fallen on an average of 3.2 percent each year for the past 10 years and a person’s lifetime risk of being diagnosed with colon cancer has dropped from 6 to 4.5 percent. “It’s important to understand that we are not seeing a new epidemic of colon cancer,” says Dr. Eisenstein. “Rather, we’re finding that compared to the older population, younger people are developing the disease at a proportionally higher rate.”

Between the mid-1980s and 2013, colon cancer rates increased approximately 1 to 2 percent per year for people in their 20s and 30s. Rates for middle-aged adults also rose slightly. Rectal cancer rates climbed faster, at about 3 percent per year for people in their 20s and 30s and 2 percent per year for those ages 40 to 54. As a result, three in 10 new cases of rectal cancer now are diagnosed in patients younger than 55, which is double the proportion in 1990.

What is the Cause?

While no one cause has been pinpointed, Dr. Eisenstein says the biggest contributing factor is the chemicals found in the food we eat. Younger people were exposed to processed and junk food earlier than their parents or grandparents, and the chemicals found in these foods can cause harm to the body.

Additionally, obesity and the factors that contribute to obesity put people at greater risk for developing colon and rectal cancers. “People who are obese live with their bodies in a constant state of chronic inflammation,” Dr. Eisenstein explains. “Inflammation impairs the immune system and can be a cause of various cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer.” Childhood obesity is becoming more common in the United States, and obese children often become obese adults who have a lesser quality of life than their parents and grandparents and who have a higher risk of developing cancer.

It Comes Down to Prevention

When it comes to preventing colorectal cancer at any age, it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle as outlined by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper’s 8 Steps to Get Cooperized. “Eating healthy foods and eating smaller portions can help with weight maintenance,” says Dr. Eisenstein. “Additionally, exercise and eliminating tobacco use can make a huge difference when it comes to cancer prevention.”

Preventive screenings are important as well. Various risk factors can contribute to developing colorectal cancer. African Americans are more at risk for developing this form of cancer. Additionally, those who smoke or who are obese also have a higher risk. “People who have one or more of these risk factors should be extra vigilant,” says Dr. Eisenstein. “I think screening guidelines should be updated to take into account the need to screen these individuals earlier in life than the recommended 50 years of age.”

Screening Recommendations

American Cancer Society and National Institutes of Health recommend screenings for colorectal cancer begin at age 50. Dr. Eisenstein says it’s not quite that simple, especially with new evidence of earlier development of colorectal cancers in younger people. “First, doctors should make sure to listen to younger patients who might experience bleeding, pain or other symptoms,” he says. “Don’t dismiss these patients as simply having hemorrhoids or other minor problems just because of their age.” Additionally, patients of all ages who notice symptoms shouldn’t blow them off. Instead, take the time to visit a physician to get checked out.

The rate of screening for colorectal cancer has increased over the past decade from approximately 40 percent to close to 60 percent, according to Dr. Eisenstein. This is a trend in the right direction, and although most colorectal cancers don’t appear in people until age 65 or 70, the latest statistics reveal the importance of screening earlier to detect precancerous polyps before they become harmful to the patient. Cooper Clinic begins talking to patients about screening for colorectal cancer at age 40, and recommends actual screenings begin at age 45. Family history and the aforementioned risk factors may affect the screening age as well.

“Overall, the findings in this study are troubling and scary,” says Dr. Eisenstein. “It’s important to understand how preventive measures can decrease the risk of developing colorectal cancer as one ages, and also to never ignore symptoms—always check in with a doctor, because it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

For more information about colorectal cancer screening and gastrointestinal services at Cooper Clinic, visit or call 972.560.2667.

Article provided by Cooper Aerobics Marketing and Communications.