But they wanted to find out why some studies have shown a rising rate among people under 50 for whom screening is generally not done. Rates for middle-aged adults also rose, but at a slower pace. Researchers from the American Cancer Society have identified a sharp rise in colon and rectal cancer rates among millennials and GenXers after reviewing some 500,000 cases dating to 1974.
About 135,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with the cancers (and 50,000 die each year, reports USA Today), but those 55 and younger now make up an appreciable number of diagnoses: 29% of rectal cancer and 17% of colon cancer cases.
There has been significant interest to do more research in this area, with this group of patients that we wouldn't normally expect to be diagnosed with cancer at such a young age.
Researchers at the American Cancer Society conducted a retrospective analysis of nearly half a million patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer between 1974 and 2013 and found that people in their twenties today have a much higher risk of developing the illness than in previous generations.
"Our finding that colorectal cancer risk among millennials has escalated back to the level of those born in the late 1800s is very sobering", Siegel said. Rebecca Siegel, an author of the study, tells The Washington Post's Laurie McGinley that she suspects it's a complex interplay between obesity, diet and low fiber consumption.
Colorectal cancer refers to malignancies in the colon or rectum, which are parts of the large intestine. Removing polyps can prevent cancer altogether.
Ms Siegel added: "Educational campaigns are needed to alert clinicians and the general public about this increase to help reduce delays in diagnosis - which are so prevalent in young people - but also to encourage healthier eating and more active lifestyles to try to reverse this trend".
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In recognition of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which takes place in March, The Valley Hospital, in conjunction with the Wyckoff Family YMCA and National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCRT), will be hosting its third annual Colon Cancer Awareness Day Fair.
Although overall rates of colon cancer started decreasing in 1974, in the mid-1980s the rates started rising 1 percent to 2 percent a year among people aged 20 to 39, the researchers found. The American Cancer Society estimates that 95,520 cases of colon cancer and 39,910 cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the country this year.
"I was in shock", she said. She began an aggressive chemotherapy regimen and expects to be on maintenance chemotherapy indefinitely.
The study confirms what many doctors have been seeing among their younger patients, said Nilofer Azad, an oncologist at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, who was not involved in the research. Although the incidence is increasing, it remains relatively low.
The three main symptoms are blood in the stools, changes in bowel habit such as to more frequent, looser stools and abdominal pain. Young people often are diagnosed at a later stage because, unlike older Americans, they aren't getting screened, and doctors don't necessarily suspect cancer, Azad noted.
The study was not able to determine the reasons for rise in colorectal cancer rates in these age groups, but Siegel notes that the increase coincides with the rise of the obesity epidemic.