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Colorectal cancer on rise in youthful patients

Dr. Israr Sheikh, a gastroenterologist at Altru Health System in Grand Forks, said the incidence of colorectal cancer has been rising in young adults for some time. He recommended colonoscopies as the "gold standard" in screening methods for colon cancer. (Andrew Haffner/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
The equipment used in a colonoscopy exam consists of a flexible, tube-like camera and a control dial. Dr. Israr Sheikh, a gastroenterologist at Altru Health System in Grand Forks, said the tube has tools in the end to scrape off cell clusters known as polyps, which can develop into colon cancer. (Andrew Haffner/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

The risk for millennials to develop one of the most common cancers is on the rise, even as overall rates are declining.

The National Cancer Institute estimates more than 135,000 people will be diagnosed in 2017 with colorectal cancer, a combined category of colon and rectal cancers. That's the fourth-most-prevalent cancer diagnosis expected for the year and one the NCI predicts ultimately will cause the deaths of 50,000 Americans.

Though colorectal cancer is most prevalent in individuals ages 55 and older, a study published in February by the NCI indicated those born in 1990 could have as much as double the risk of developing colon cancer compared with those born in 1950. Even worse, the younger generation could be four times as likely to develop rectal cancer.

The levels for the youthful cohort have a nasty throwback value—age-specific risk has grown to levels comparable with those seen in the generation born in about 1890, according to the study.

Dr. Israr Sheikh, a gastroenterologist at Altru Health System in Grand Forks, said the findings are part of a body of "good evidence" that screenings for colorectal cancer should begin in patients younger than the current medical guideline of age 50.

Sheikh said the incidence of colorectal cancer has been rising for some time in young adults, particularly for those in their 20s.

"Most of it has to do with lifestyle," he said.

Risk factors for the disease include obesity, diabetes and high consumption of red meats and processed meats, such as hot dogs and bologna. Use of tobacco and excessive consumption of alcohol also can increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer, Sheikh said.

Beyond lifestyle, there's also a genetic component to colorectal cancer. Evidence suggests disorders such as Crohn's disease and inflammatory bowel disease also contribute to the cancer's development.

"The need for screening is quite essential," Sheikh said. Though there are now multiple options for those looking to get tested for the disease, he described colonoscopies as the "gold standard."

Younger patients might not be jumping to get their colonoscopies, but Sheikh said they might want to take heed of the symptoms of colorectal cancer.

Though seeing blood in feces is one easily visible effect, Sheikh said that doesn't often occur until the disease is well-developed. He said the other, earlier symptoms can include sudden, unexplained weight loss, abrupt changes in bowel movements and loss of appetite.

"Screening happens at an older age, so we're still missing a lot of people," Sheikh said. For younger patients, he said it's important to practice healthy lifestyle choices and to take heed of bodily changes.

"Looking at your symptoms is so important," he said. "That's the best way to prevent colon cancer."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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