Colon Cancer Deaths on the Rise for Younger Adults

CLEVELAND – Colon cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers in the U.S. with about 140,000 new cases detected each year.

And while overall rates for colon cancer are declining, a new study is showing a disturbing trend.

Alok Khorana, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic, did not take part in the study, but said the results show, for some, colon cancer deaths are actually on the rise.

“In younger patients, who are typically not eligible for screening colonoscopies, we are discovering more and more colorectal cancer in those patients,” said Dr. Khorana. “Not only are the incidence rates going up – that’s been previously reported – but mortality rates in the 20 to 54-year-old population are also going up.” 

The study looked at the number of colon cancer deaths over the past several decades and compared it with different age groups as well as different racial groups.

Researchers found the increase in death rates from colon cancer for younger adults only applied to white patients, whereas non-white races did not see an increase.

Current U.S. recommendations call for colonoscopy screenings to begin at age 50 for folks who don’t have a family history of colon cancer.

Dr. Khorana said this study isn’t enough to suggest that everyone should be screened before age 50, but rather that more research needs to be done to determine who should be targeted for earlier screening.

He said even though the number of younger adults with colon cancer has gone up a little, it is still much lower than the rates for those over the age of 50.

Dr. Khorana believes the most important things that people need to know when it comes to preventing colon cancer are their personal risk factors, and when to start screening.

“You really should be out there getting your colonoscopy once you turn 50 and if you have a family member that has a history of colon or rectal cancer, you should be starting even earlier,” said Dr. Khorana. 

Dr. Khorana said colon cancer, at any age, typically has symptoms, such as abdominal pain, changes in bowel habits or rectal bleeding. He cautions people to never assume that bleeding is the result of hemorrhoids, because it could be a warning sign of something more serious.

He said the results of the study should not scare anyone, but he urges people to make sure they are being screened when it is recommended.

“It’s still important to remember the bottom line, which is that overall mortality rates are declining,” said Dr. Khorana. “And they’re at least partly declining because of the successful outcomes with screening colonoscopies.”

Complete results of the study can be found in JAMA.