A Growing Concern: Colon Cancer Rates Rise in Those Under 50
By Arianna Coghill
September 7, 2020

Colon cancer, when detected, has a 90% chance of being cured. But catching it early is the key.

CHARLOTTESVILLE-On Aug. 28, actor Chadwick Boseman passed away from complications with colon cancer at the age of 43. While a tragedy, the “Black Panther” star’s untimely death helped shed light on colorectal cancer and its increasing rates among young people and Black men.  

Colon cancer is often less talked about than other forms of the illness, says Ann Rigdon, RN and administrative coordinator for the UVA Colorectal Cancer Screening Program. 

“I like to say the ostrich is the mascot of colon cancer,” said Rigdon.“Because like an ostrich, people like to bury their heads in the sand when it comes up. It doesn’t get talked about. Things like rectal bleeding aren’t always easy to talk about with a doctor. ” 

It’s this lack of communication that leads the misconceptions about colon cancer to spread. People don’t get tested because they don’t know what the symptoms are. They don’t know who’s most at risk or even what the screening process is.

Age and Racial Disparities in Colon Cancer Diagnoses

Anyone can be diagnosed with colon cancer. However, certain racial groups are at higher risk of being diagnosed and ultimately dying from the illness. The ACS reported that Black people are 20% more likely to contract and 40% more likely to die from colorectal cancer than their white counterparts. 

When you look at gender, the disparity tips further. Black men are more likely than any other group to have colorectal cancer. 

Health officials attributed this racial disparity to a number of causes, including racial oppression and socioeconomic struggles that contribute to low screening rates. 

“These disparities are rooted in long-existing policies and social determinants of health that include living environment, lifestyle factors, medical comorbidities, differences in screening utilization and health insurance, as well as unequal treatment by health care systems,” Dr. Folasade May said in a CNN opinion piece.  “As a result, Blacks see disparities in every aspect of the colorectal cancer continuum, from prevention and early detection to treatment and survival.”

Hispanic/ latino, American Indian and Alaskan Native communities also suffer from an elevated risk in colon cancer due to these issues. 

Other Factors Increase Your Risk

Besides race, there are other factors that may increase your risk of colon cancer. They include: 

  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Obesity
  • Being over age 50

However, just because a person does not partake in any of the above mentioned doesn’t mean that their risk of colorectal cancer dissipates. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about colon cancer is that it only happens to the elderly. While the average age is 66 years old in men and 69 years old with women, it’s beginning to rise in younger age groups.  

Data from the American Cancer Society reveals that the rate of people diagnosed under the age of 50 is rising by 2.2% a year.  The ACS also reported that 3,640 people between 0-49 years of age have died due to colon and rectal cancer in 2020 so far. 

What Are the Symptoms of Colon Cancer?

Dubbed the “silent killer”, colorectal cancer symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer spreads, making it more difficult to treat. Even when they do surface, symptoms can often be vague. It’s common to misidentify colon cancer symptoms for things like hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome. 

Screening is the only way to eliminate colon cancer as the cause of these symptoms.  This, according to Rigdon, is the reason why getting screened is so important. 

“Even if you think it’s only hemorrhoids, it’s always worth investigating if you’re experiencing symptoms,” said Rigdon. 

According to Rigdon, the most common colon cancer symptoms include:

  • A change in bowel habits that lasts for more than four months, including diarrhea or constipation
  • Blood in your stool
  • Persistent abdominal pain or cramping
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue/weakness

When Should You Get Screened?

According to the ACS, 90% of colon cancer cases are curable when they’re caught. But making sure they’re caught in enough time is the kicker. Rigdon says that early detection is the key to preventing colon cancer. 

Currently, the American Cancer Society recommends getting tested at age 45, five years younger than the previous suggested testing age. However, even if you’re below 45 or at average risk, it never hurts to get screened. 

Screening is especially important if you’re considered “high risk”, meaning that you exhibit symptoms or have a first degree relative who’s had colon cancer. If you have a close relative with colon cancer, like a parent, grandparent or sibling, your own chances of contracting the illness increase. 

Rigdon suggests getting screened at least 10 years earlier than when your relative was initially diagnosed. 

“For example if your mother was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 51, you should get tested at 41 years old at least,” said Rigdon. 

Rigdon also stresses the importance of repeat testing. Depending on the method you use, this frequency can be anywhere from every one to ten years. 

“After you get tested once, it doesn’t mean that you’re safe forever,” said Rigdon. “Make sure that when you pick a method of testing you stick to it. If you get a colonoscopy, make sure you follow up with another one in ten years.” 

How Do You Get Screened? 

There are several different ways to get screened for colon cancer, with many methods covered by the Affordable Care Act.  

The most well known form of screening is a colonoscopy- a procedure that involves a long, flexible tube inserted into the rectum that allows a doctor to search for abnormalities in the colon.  While it is the most thorough form of screening, it is not the only way. 

At home tests are often more accessible and usually serve as a less invasive alternative to a colonoscopy. Studies show that these tests are 92 percent accurate in detecting colon cancer, however false positives are more common with this process. 

Check with your healthcare provider to make sure your preference is available, suggests Rigdon.  

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