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Early Onset Colorectal Cancer is on the Rise

There has been a stark rise in the number of young people being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In the past 25 years, the number of cases has gone up almost 40 percent. When compared to a decrease of 40 percent in populations that have typically been affected by cancer, this is particularly alarming.

The Cancer Center at the University of Colorado has been investigating why this increase in diagnoses is occurring in younger populations and how numbers can be reduced.

The Trend

“The incidence of colorectal cancer has increased by nearly 50 percent in young people,” reports Dennis Ahnen, MD, CU Cancer Center member, and gastroenterologist. “The reasons why this is happening are not clear. There are plenty of theories floating around that might explain the increase, but nothing is definitive.”

Only 6 percent of colorectal cancer diagnoses were occurring in patients under 50 years old in 1990. That number has gone up by about 2 percent consistently each year. Even with these numbers rising, colorectal cancer is still primarily diagnosed in patients over 50. In recent years there have been efforts to increase awareness of early-onset colorectal cancer with the goal being to decrease misdiagnoses and later stage diagnoses.

Issues at Diagnosis

A significant problem with early-onset colorectal cancer is that medical professionals are trained to think of common diagnoses first before exploring rarer ones.

Many symptoms of colorectal cancer can be explained by other medical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or hemorrhoids,” Christopher Lieu, MD, explains, “Unless there are indicators that the person may be at a higher risk of developing the disease, more often than not doctors will not start looking for cancer right away.”

This is problematic when a young person actually has cancer. A sample of statistics on young people from the Colorectal Cancer Alliance demonstrates the need for greater awareness of early-onset colorectal cancer:

  • 82% of young cancer survivors were initially misdiagnosed
  • 73% were diagnosed at a later stage
  • 67% saw at least two doctors before being diagnosed

“It is vital that the medical community becomes aware that more young people are being diagnosed,” Ahnen reports. “When a patient comes in with symptoms like rectal bleeding, persistent abdominal discomfort, we need to consider that colorectal cancer could be what is causing the symptoms.”

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