Student loan debt, high home prices, uncertain job security … millennial life often isn’t always as rosy as it might seem, and now there’s something else to add to the list: colorectal cancers.
Usually thought of as a cancer that hits the 50-plus crowd, colorectal cancers rates are actually decreasing among that age group. Disturbingly, however, there’s been a rise of the disease among young adults, which was once considered quite rare. Why is this happening and what kind of natural cancer treatments or preventative measures should be taken?
Colon and Rectal Cancer Increasing Among Gen Xers and Millennials
The troubling information comes from a new study by the American Cancer Society published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. (1) The majority of colon and rectal cancers — nearly 90 percent — are still among people ages 50 and over.
But the study found that while colorectal cancer rates have been steadily declining among people born between 1890 and 1950, they’ve been sharply rising with each generation since 1950, by about 1 to 2 percent a year, for adults in their 20s and 30s.
That means someone born in 1990 would have twice the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer at the same age than if they been born in 1950, according to the researchers at the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, which helped fund the study.
When these cancers show up in younger adults, they’re often diagnosed at a much more advanced stage. Doctors often confuse the symptoms with something else, like hemorrhoids, since colorectal cancer rates among this age group used to be uncommon.
And while colonoscopies, which check for pre-cancerous growth (polyps), are recommended for adults over the age of 50, there’s no standard recommendation for younger adults at this time — because, until now, there’s never been a real need.
What Are Colorectal Cancers?
Colorectal cancer is used to describe cancer that begins in the colon or the rectum, which are both part of the large intestine. They’re usually grouped together because they both share many similar features. (2)
Colorectal cancers usually begin with the growth of polyps along the lining of the colon or rectum; this is what colonoscopies look for. Most polyps are benign, but some can eventually turn into cancer.
According to the American Cancer Sociey, the wall of the colon and rectum are made up of layers, and colorectal cancer begins in the innermost layer, though it can grow outward. Once the cancer cells are in the wall, they’re able to grow into blood vessels or lymph nodes, traveling outside the colon or rectum and into the rest of the body.
The stage of a person’s colorectal cancer depends on how far into the wall the cancerous cells have gotten, and whether it’s spread to different parts of the body.
Potential Reasons for Increasing Colorectal Cancer Rates
It’d be great news if we knew exactly why colorectal cancer rates are rising among young people. Unfortunately, researchers aren’t quite sure what’s brought about the increase in colorectal cancer rates among a younger crowd, but they do have their suspicions.
Our genetics likely haven’t changed drastically since the 1950s. But what is dramatically different is the foods we eat, our sedentary lifestyles and ever-increasing rates of obesity.
The study even points to the fact that, if young adults as a group hadn’t also had long-term declines in alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking, rates of colorectal cancer would be even higher. While we might have turned our noses up at those vices, others have taken their place.
Proven lifestyle factors that can increase the risk of colorectal cancer include being overweight, consumption of processed meat, low levels of physical activity and low levels of fiber consumption. In fact, the rise of colorectal cancer is parallel to the rise in obesity. Additionally, emulsifiers, which are an additive often used in processed foods to improve the texture and extend the shelf life, have been linked to colon cancer.
What’s interesting about the study is that while it recommends that, as a nation, we encourage preventative behavior to quell the rise in colorectal cancer among younger adults, it’s also realistic in acknowledging that health policy changes are necessary.
It points to a need for physicians to be trained in spotting warning signs of the disease in younger folks. It also notes that younger people are three times more likely to be uninsured than those over 55 years old. Affordable health care, the researchers maintain, has an effect on earlier detection rates.
Ways to Help Prevent Colorectal Cancer
While the headlines are alarming, colorectal cancer among young adults, though increasing, is still nowhere near common. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 95,520 new cases of colon cancer and 39,901 new cases of rectal cancer. (3) Of those, only about 13,500 are expected to be diagnosed in Americans under 50 years old.
Still, if you want to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer, no matter what your age, there are several lifestyle changes you can make.
1. Get moving. With most of us spending our days behind computer screens, binge watching Netflix episodes or addicted to our smartphone screens, we’ve become much more sedentary than people just a generation or two ago were.
A sedentary lifestyle leads to a host of health effects, none of which are positive: heart disease, diabetes and poor circulation.
Too much sitting is a culprit, too. Even with a desk-based workday, however, you can inject more movement into your day.
Reduce the amount of emails you send and get up and talk to a coworker instead. Go for a lunchtime or after-dinner walk. Set a timer to remind you to get up and move, even if it’s to grab a glass of water, every half hour. Walk to errands when possible or park the car farther away. Use a fitness tracker. Every bit counts!
2. Overhaul your diet. The study specifically points to the fact that foods like processed meats and nutrient-empty refined carbohydrates, along with not enough fiber-rich foods, could be adding to the upward trend in colorectal cancers.
The more we understand about our bodies, the more we uncover how unhealthy these foods are. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a disease or condition that isn’t worsened by these types of foods. A lot of it has to do with inflammation; just two weeks of a Western-style diet, heavy in refined carbohydrates and low in fiber, found increased inflammation in the colonic wall. (4)
And a switch from a traditional diet heavy in fish and plants to a Western diet has been attributed to a rise of colorectal cancer in Japanese adults in just one generation. (5)
The healing foods diet is one of the easiest ways to transition into eating better for your body. It naturally reduces inflammation while giving you a huge variety of different whole foods to choose from. If you’re already fairly diligent in what you eat, you might want to experiment with going low-carb or adding more of these high-fiber foods to your menu.
Most importantly, choose the best cancer-fighting foods that you can. Lots of fruit and vegetables can help lower the risk of cancer and offer protective elements so these should be the bases of your diet. On top of that, obtaining enough healthy proteins and fatty acids keeps your immune system working properly and prevents muscle wasting, deficiencies, or hormonal and nerve problems.
3. Keep away from smoking and excess alcohol. You’re not still smoking, are you? Whether you’re smoking tobacco or electronic cigarettes, the best thing you can do for your health is to quit immediately.
Though a glass of wine can be healthy for you, one glass for women and two glasses for men is the recommended allowance. More than that regularly can spell trouble for your health and waistline.
4. Let your doctor know if you have a family history of the disease. If someone in your family, particularly a first-degree connection (your parents or siblings), has had colorectal cancer, it’s important to share that information with your primary care physician. They can help you better closely monitor any changes in your health, can recommend earlier screening or even genetic testing.
The upward tick in colorectal cancer among young adults is troubling, but it’s still low. Adults under 50 who are diagnosed tend to have more advanced cancer, as it is often misdiagnosed as something else.
While doctors are unsure of what exactly has caused the rise in colorectal cancer over the last few generations, the rise in obesity, the types of foods we eat and our sedentary lifestyle all likely play a role. By making lifestyle changes, you could be reducing your risk not just for colorectal cancers, but an array of other diseases, too.