The untimely death of actor Chadwick Boseman to colorectal cancer last summer brought much-needed attention to the deadly disease, particularly its rise in younger adults. It’s National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month; take a moment to learn about this disease. It may save your life.
Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women in the U.S. An estimated 149,500 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and nearly 53,000 are expected to die of the disease in 2021. In Maryland alone, an estimated 2,550 will be diagnosed and 1,050 will die of colorectal cancer in 2021. Despite declining death rates among older adults, it is still the third leading cause of cancer deaths in men and in women, and rates in those under age 55 are increasing.
The rise of young-onset colorectal cancer is alarming. According to the National Cancer Institute, incidence rates in adults younger than age 50 have more than doubled since the 1990s. This group is more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage (when the cancer is more advanced and harder to treat), see two or more doctors before getting diagnosed, and have a family history of colorectal cancer.
Experts are not yet sure the cause of this trend, but being obese, living a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, consuming alcohol in excess, eating a diet high in red or processed meats, and eating a diet with insufficient fruits, vegetables and whole grains can increase your risk. Other risk factors include having inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, having a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps (precancerous growths), and having certain genetic syndromes. Since most young adults will not qualify for screening, it’s especially critical that you take steps to reduce your cancer risk and learn the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer so you can advocate for your health.
Black Americans are 20% more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and 40% more likely to die from complications of the disease than most other racial groups in the U.S. We need more research to determine why, but socioeconomic factors, including access to affordable health care, play a role. Biological factors may also increase Black Americans’ risk.
In older adults, effective screening is largely responsible for the declining colorectal cancer rates. With a colonoscopy, your doctor can detect polyps that can be removed or monitored before cancer develops. The American Cancer Society recommends screening begin at age 45 for those at average risk, which the Prevent Cancer Foundation supports. In 2020, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released a new draft recommendation, giving a “B” recommendation for colorectal cancer screening in adults ages 45 to 49 at average risk (there was previously no recommendation for this age group). If finalized, insurance companies would need to cover screenings in this age group as they do for adults ages 50 to 75.
If you postponed a screening due to COVID-19, now is the time to schedule your appointment. If you are still uncomfortable or are unable to visit a health care facility, talk to your health care provider about at-home colorectal cancer tests to determine what is best for you. Learn more at preventcancer.org/colorectalcancer.
Nicole Beus Harris is the spouse of Representative Andy Harris, M.D. and a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program. Statistics provided by the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute.