It was known as a disease of the elderly, until recently. A study led by the American Cancer Society last year confirmed what oncologists have seen firsthand: Rates of colorectal cancer, which include colon and rectal cancer, are rising among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
It’s a trend that’s baffling doctors. The risk factors for colorectal cancer – such as obesity, diabetes, smoking and drinking – are more prevalent in older populations than younger ones, yet the rates are decreasing in the older and increasing in the younger. Last year’s ACS study showed that 20-somethings have experienced the most dramatic increases, with rates of colorectal cancer rising nearly 4 percent each year between 1987 and 2013.
“It’s a very alarming phenomenon,” says Mohamad Salem, MD, an oncologist with Atrium Health’s (formerly Carolinas HealthCare System’s) Levine Cancer Institute. “Most of the younger patients with colorectal cancer we see in our clinic don’t have these risk factors. Most of them eat healthy, they’re in good shape, they have no family history. Most likely, there’s something else going on causing this.”