Young-Onset Colon Cancer Is On the Rise

Young onset colon cancer blog heading

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States. It is one of the most lethal cancers in the United States. Over the last several decades, the overall rates of colorectal cancer have decreased. This is mostly due to increased screening and broader awareness. However, the rate of colorectal cancer in patients under 50 has actually increased, anywhere from 3-8%! Now, 10% of colon cancers are diagnosed in patients under 50.

Why is there an increase?

It is not clear why the rate of young people diagnosed with colorectal cancer is increasing. Possible causes include increased rates of obesity, poor diet, and the increased rate of sedentary lifestyles. Smoking is also known to increase the risk of colon cancer. There are also studies looking into changes in our gut’s microbiome as a possible contributor. Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s, Ulcerative colitis), family history of colon cancer, and certain hereditary conditions (Lynch syndrome, Familial Adenomatous Polyposis) can increase the risk of colon cancer. However, the rate of increased colorectal cancer in those under 50 cannot be explained by these conditions alone.

Most patients under 50 have symptoms at the time of diagnosis and their cancers are usually more advanced. The recently deceased Chadwick Boseman, star of “Black Panther”, had stage three colon cancer at the time of diagnosis. He was only 39. Early-stage colon cancer is usually treatable, making it less lethal. If diagnosed at a later stage, the outcome will be worse. Fortunately, if caught early, many colorectal cancers are treatable with surgery and chemotherapy. Concerning symptoms that need to be evaluated include blood in the stool or rectal bleeding, unexplained abdominal pain, and new changes in bowel habits. Some patients with colorectal cancer also had a low blood count (anemia).


The current guidelines recommend beginning screening for colon cancer for most people who are at average risk at age 50. Those with inflammatory bowel disease, a family history of colon cancer, or a family history of certain genetic conditions should start screening early. Family history of certain advanced precancerous polyps can also increase the risk of colon cancer. One first-degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister, or child) increases the risk of colon cancer 2-3 fold, though the lifetime risk of having colon cancer is still very small; only about 6%.  It is important to have a good understanding of your family’s medical history and to discuss it with your primary care provider. You may need to start your colon cancer screening early.


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