You’re Not Too Young to Get Colorectal Cancer!



colon cancer

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


If you do a simple Google search of “colorectal cancer and young people,” you will see far too many recent stories about people under the age of 40 afflicted by this type of cancer. It is reportedly the third most common cancer in both men and women in the United States. It is also the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in American people, according to the American Cancer Society.

(Also called bowel cancer, colorectal cancer starts in the colon or rectum. This cancer may also be referred to as colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where it starts).

Take, for example, the story of 27-year-old Liz Taylor. After noticing she consistently had blood in her stool, she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with an internal hemorrhoid. This occurred during the time period that she gave birth to two children, so Taylor figured this was an accurate diagnosis (hemorrhoids are common in pregnancy).

But at the age of 34, Taylor sought a second opinion because the blood in her stool was still present and she wasn’t feeling like herself. After undergoing lab tests, she was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. Through surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, Taylor fortunately won the battle against her cancer.

A young mom, 32-years-old, who also noticed blood in her stool was not as fortunate as Taylor. Reportedly, doctors told her she was “too young” for bowel cancer, but she lost her life to metastatic colorectal cancer and is survived by her three young children.

One recent study led by the American Cancer Society suggested that those born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer compared to people born around 1950.

There has actually been an overall reduction in the rates of bowel cancer in the U.S., but this drop is seen in older adults. Meanwhile, we are seeing an increase in younger people.

Researchers with the American Cancer Society looked at medical records of nearly 500,000 people 20 years and older (including people born in 1890 through those born in 1990) who were diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer from 1974 through 2013.

This is what they found:

  • Adults ages 20 to 39, colon cancer incidence rates increased by 1% to 2% per year through 2013.
  • Adults ages 20 to 29, rectal cancer incidence rates increased by about 3% per year from 1974 to 2013. Same increase was seen in adults 30 to 39 from 1980 to 2013.
  • Adults ages 40 to 54, colon cancer rates increased by 0.5% to 1% per year from the mid-1990s through 2013.
  • Adults ages 40 to 54, rectal cancer incidence rates increased by 2% per year from the 1990s to 2013.

(The recommended (per the American Cancer Society) screening age for this type of cancer was lowered from age 50 to age 45).

So Why Are We Seeing an Increase in Colorectal Cancer Rates Among Young People?

A major cause of this may be connected to the obesity epidemic in America which greatly affects young people. According to a recent report, 18.5% of Americans (ages 2 to 19) are obese.

Another recent study found a link between obesity and a greater risk of early-onset (meaning at a younger age) colorectal cancer among women. Researchers of the study examined more than 85,000 women. The women who were obese (with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more) had a nearly doubled risk of early-onset colorectal cancer compared to women with a body mass index of 18.5 to 22.9.

Although this particular study looked at women, it is important to note that colorectal cancer is slightly more common in men (about 1 in 22 (4.49%) for men and 1 in 24 (4.15%) for women, American Cancer Society).

However, “[a]s a person gains weight, there is a much more modest rise in colon cancer risk for women than there is for men,” according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“The main reason obesity is thought of as a potential driver of early-onset colorectal cancer is because it’s associated with inflammation in the body,” according to a report from Vox.

Chronic inflammation in the body is believed to be one of the root causes of all types of cancer and many types of other diseases such as heart disease, depression and dementia.

To be clear, we do have what you could call “good inflammation.” This type of inflammation is your body’s immune response to harmful pathogens. For example, “our skin reddens and heats up to fight off bacteria in a cut,” reports Vox.

But chronic inflammation is a different story. Chronic inflammation is “when your body’s inflammatory response goes into overdrive, hampering its ability to fight off viruses and disease. One measure of it is a blood marker called C-reactive protein (CRP). Researchers have found associations between higher levels of CRP and various chronic illnesses, including cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.”

Furthermore, “People who are inactive or obese or who eat an unhealthy diet seem to have higher levels of CRP in their systems too.”

How Can Young People Be Proactive About Lowering Their Rates of Colorectal Cancer?

It appears that young people can no longer afford to not treat obesity as a serious, life-threatening illness.

If you are overweight or obese, it is a good idea to make the necessary lifestyle changes to have a healthier weight. This includes getting adequate exercise so you can decrease your chance of developing colorectal cancer. And the sooner you can get control of your weight while you are young, the less likely you will struggle with weight issues as you get older. 

Eat Healthily.

To avoid being obese, it is highly recommended to eat a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. But aside from weight, nutrient-rich foods help reduce inflammation in the body. And as mentioned, chronic inflammation appears to be a root cause of early-onset colorectal cancer.

These nutrient-rich foods are also great sources of dietary fiber, and fiber has proven to be key not only in the prevention but also management of colorectal cancer. 

Steer Clear of the Proinflammatory Diet.

Just as important as it is to know which foods to eat, you need to know which foods to avoid (or eat in moderation).

Recent research shows that a proinflammatory diet, (a diet heavy in processed foods and alcohol), increases the risk of colorectal cancer in both men and women.

Eating too much of the following foods may increase your risk of colorectal cancer: red meat, organ meat, refined flour and sugary drinks.

(Processed meat like salami and hot dogs have also been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer).

According to one study, people who ate the most inflammatory foods were 37% more likely to develop colon cancer and 70% more likely to develop rectal cancer, compared with those who had less inflammation-causing foods in their diets.

Green leafy vegetables, dark yellow vegetables, whole grains, coffee (I would suggest in moderation) and fruit juice (natural and without added sugar) appear to reduce inflammation. 

It’s Not Just About Your Weight.

If you are one of those people who seems to be able to eat whatever you want and never have weight issues, you may consider yourself to be very lucky. But even though you may have no problem fitting into your jeans, if you eat a lot of proinflammatory foods, you will still cause inflammation in your body.

All the research discussed suggests that obesity may not be the only reason why we are seeing higher rates of colorectal cancer in young people. Family history and an unhealthy lifestyle, like excessive drinking and smoking are also factors that need to be taken into consideration.

One of the main takeaways from all this is that young people need to get screened for colorectal cancer, especially if they experience rectal bleeding, changes in bowel habits and other symptoms.

Know Your Nutrients.

Getting nutrients like certain vitamins and minerals from eating healthy foods is invaluable to your health and preventing disease. Also know that there are specific nutrients that may help decrease your chance of getting colorectal cancer if you get an adequate intake of these nutrients.

Some of these nutrients include:

  • Calcium. Adequate calcium may decrease your risk for colorectal cancer. Recent studies confirm that high calcium intake is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer among both men and women. For foods rich in calcium, click here.
  • Sulfur. Antioxidant enzymes glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase (which are sulfur compounds), catalase and superoxide dismutase (which is a manganese compound), all neutralize DNA-harming free radicals, which contribute to cancer development. Most of your dietary sulfur comes from protein such as fish, beef and poultry. That’s because these foods supply sulfur-containing amino acids like methionine and cysteine. You can also find sulfur in egg yolks, beans, coconut, bananas, pineapple, watermelon, broccoli, garlic, onions, asparagus, leeks, kale, sweet potatoes, peas, chives, avocados, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, wheat germ and tomatoes.
  • Selenium. This mineral may be protective against cancer, and a deficiency in this important mineral is a risk factor for several types of cancer. Foods high in selenium include Brazil nuts, yellowfin tuna, halibut, sardines, oysters, whole grains and chicken.

Get a Nutrient Test.

Maintaining nutritional balance in your body, as in not having too much or too little of any essential vitamin or mineral, is key in preventing inflammation and disease and maintaining your overall health and wellness. Getting routine nutrient tests, will determine if you have any nutrient imbalances. If you do, a competent healthcare professional can work with you on possibly making adjustments to your diet and/or recommend quality supplements.

You can read more about life-saving nutrients, particularly as they relate to cancer prevention, in Minerals - The Forgotten Nutrient. 

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.