here's why colon cancer is on the rise amongst young adults

There’s a ‘bowel cancer tsunami’ among young people — here’s what you need to know

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Colon cancer is now more prevalent in those under 50 than ever. But why, and what symptoms do you need to be aware of?

There’s a silent epidemic sweeping the nation: colon cancer. If you ask any young adult how often they worry about the prospect of getting colon cancer (also known as colorectal), or other types of bowel cancers, the answer is probably zero. Yet, shockingly, staggering new research from the Annals of Oncology has revealed that the rate at which people under 50 in the UK are dying from bowel cancer is on course to rise by a third in 2024 alone.

Even more worryingly, research forecasts that bowel cancer death rates will rise in women of all ages across the UK — a stark contrast to the declines in rates seen in other types of cancers.

In Europe, the BMJ reported a 7.9% rise per year in the occurrence of colorectal cancer in those aged from 20 to 29, from 2004 to 2016. In those aged 30 to 39, the increase was 4.9% per year, and in those aged 40 to 49, that figure stood at 1.6%.

A spotlight was put onto the disease when Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman tragically passed away from the disease at the age of 43 after being diagnosed four years prior — but it seems awareness hasn’t changed that much despite the headlines.

According to Dr Alasdair Scott, bowel cancer surgeon and science director at Selph, we’re in the midst of what he calls a ‘bowel cancer tsunami’. “About 90% of bowel cancer is diagnosed in people over the age of 50. However, the number of people being diagnosed with bowel cancer before the age of 50 is increasing,” he says. “This is a ‘birth cohort’ effect. Effectively, people born in the 1980s and 1990s ‘birth cohort’ have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer at any given age. Specifically, people born in the 1990s are estimated to have twice the risk of developing bowel cancer in their lifetime as someone born in the 1950s.”

So, why are so many young people falling victim to the disease, and what symptoms should they lookout for?

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What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer is a type of cancer of the bowel. Otherwise known as colorectal cancer, the disease starts in either the colon or the rectum, and often manifests as polyps (growths) on the inner lining of the colon or the rectum. Colon cancer originates in the innermost layer of the colon and grows outwards.

Unfortunately, if a cancer reaches the wall of the colon, it can then grow into blood vessels or lymph nodes, allowing it to travel to other parts of the body. The stage of colon cancer diagnosed depends on how far it has grown into the wall, and if it has spread to other areas of the body.

Colon cancer is currently the third most common cancer worldwide, and also the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide.

What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

“The symptoms tend to be the sort of things that warrant seeking further advice from your GP,” explains Dr Hasan Khan. “Things like blood in your stool or rectal bleeding, a change in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, abdominal cramping or pain, generalised weakness and fatigue and a feeling that the bowel isn’t emptying properly,” he adds. Those with family members who have been diagnosed with colon cancer early in life may be of increased risk, so it’s important to keep an eye on any changes or potential symptoms.

Why are so many young people getting diagnosed?

“The increase of colon cancer among young people is likely related to the evolution of the gut microbiome,” says Dr Hasan. “Elements such as unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles will be leading factors, and I also suspect that a number of external environmental factors contribute to chronic inflammation and increase one’s risk of greater cell turnover, and hence a higher risk of abnormal cell growth.”

According to Dr Hasan, alcohol and tobacco use can also cause a higher risk, as can a lack of physical movement and diets high in processed foods, inflammatory foods and red meats, and low in fibre. Stress can also play a huge role in potential risk, too.

Dr Alasdair agrees that a sedentary lifestyle is a leading cause of bowel cancer. “In terms of exercise, the 1980 and 1990 birth cohort almost certainly move less than people born in earlier cohorts, and we know that rates of obesity are currently at record levels. The lack of exercise and rising rates of obesity are both independent risk factors for developing bowel cancer.”

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colon cancer graphic
Photo © Shutterstock / Photo above © Shutterstock
Is there anything you can do to minimise risk and promote a healthy colon?

“Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is really important in minimising risk, so things like making sure you’re exercising regularly, eating low-inflammatory foods and maintaining good hydration and fibre intake,” says Dr Hasan. “If you have symptoms of IBS or other gut-related symptoms, ensuring the gut microbiome is optimised is sensible — this can be achieved through various probiotics including Symprove and Bio-Kult, for example.”

As well as adopting healthy lifestyle habits, Dr Hasan also recommends allowing the gut to rest appropriately, either through eating small, regular meals, or fasting intermittently.

How do you get screened for colon cancer, and should I?

Those aged between 54 to 74 will be invited to take part in a screening programme every two years, though this will soon be extended to include those aged 50 and onwards. It’s important to attend screening appointments to minimise risk, points out Dr Hasan.

“If you have a previous history of cancer, suffer with irritable bowel disease (IBD), familial adenomatous polyposis or obesity, screening is even more important, as you may be at greater risk and being screened can of course aid with early detection,” he says. “It’s worth noting, however, that no test is 100% accurate and, if you do get symptoms, it’s important to seek immediate medical advice.”

“Medical evidence suggests that about 50% of bowel cancer cases are preventable, meaning they’re influenced by a person’s lifestyle,” says Dr Alasdair. “Stopping smoking, eating better, moving more and attending screening sessions are indeed vital in reducing your risk.”

You can find more information on the NHS screening programme, including who’s eligible and instructions on completing home tests, via the NHS website.

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