When you’re a young adult, defined as someone between the ages of 15 and 39, a cancer diagnosis is the last thing you ever expect to battle through. You’re on the cusp of so many major life events, beginning new careers, starting new relationships, maybe moving to a new city. There’s so much in front of you and cancer is never part of the plan.
Unfortunately, cancer can impact your life at any age. For Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to colon and rectal surgeon Anthony Dakwar, MD, FACS, at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center to learn about the risks young adults face – and preventative measures that can be taken – when it comes to colorectal cancer.
Young adult cancer diagnosis on the rise
“People used to think this was an ‘older person’s disease’. That is not the case,” says Dr. Dakwar. The rise as been so prevalent during the last 20 years that the American Cancer Society lowered the recommended screening age for colorectal cancer from 50 to 45. With the continual increase in cases, Dr. Dakwar predicts this recommended age will continue to change.
There are several factors that attribute to some young adults being at a higher risk for developing colorectal cancer:
- Heavy alcohol use
- Substantial red meat consumption
- A family history of colorectal cancer
- Gastrointestinal diseases (such as inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease)
- African American or Native American ethnicity
“Young adults need to be aware of their bodies and any changes they are noticing,” advises Dr. Dakwar. It can be scary when you notice major changes in your health; the fear of the unknown and what you will find out may prevent you from seeking medical attention. It’s important to bring up any changes in your body to your doctor.
“Blood in your stool is never normal; don’t ever write that off as hemorrhoids. You need to get that checked out,” Dr. Dakwar emphasizes. “Changes in bowel habits like constipation or diarrhea, thin or flat stools, and abdominal pain before or after you eat can all be signs that you should be evaluated by your primary care physician.
“It’s also important to know your family history. We’re finding genetics play an increased role in diagnosis. If you or your family members have history of gastrointestinal cancers, you should definitely get screened earlier.”
How can a young adult be screened for colorectal cancer?
“The gold standard for colorectal cancer screening is a colonoscopy,” explains Dr. Dakwar. “It is used as both a screening and preventative measure for colorectal cancer. If we see a polyp we can remove it before it gets the chance to develop into cancer.”
During a colonoscopy, a colonoscope (a thin, flexible tube with a light source and camera on the end) is used to examine the lining of the colon and rectum for polyps. If polyps are found, they are removed during the exam and tested for signs of cancerous cells. “The majority of people that get a colonoscopy don’t even remember the process. There is very minimal, if any, discomfort afterwards. It’s generally an uneventful screening procedure,” Dr. Dakwar assures.
Stigma around this procedure might deter you from making an appointment but taking preventative measures can be the difference between early detection and a cancer diagnosis. If you are at higher risk for developing colorectal cancer, don’t hesitate to make your screening appointment.