Colorectal Cancer—It’s Not Just for Older Adults

medical photo of a colon

Like more and more colorectal cancer patients nationwide, Mount Pleasant resident Marielle McLeod was young—she’d just turned 36—when she had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

“I noticed that I was struggling to use the bathroom,” she recalls. Having recently lost 30 pounds, the former college athlete and mom of four figured it was a side effect of her new diet. But when the problems persisted, she saw her primary care doctor, who referred her for a colonoscopy.

“I thought I was too young for a colonoscopy,” she says. During the screening test, the doctor found a mass in her colon which was sent to a pathologist. A CT scan and referral to a colorectal surgeon and oncologist followed: to her disbelief, she had colorectal cancer.

While overall rates of colon and rectal cancer have gone down in the U.S. since the mid-1980s (thanks in large part to improved and increased screening among older adults), incidence rates among young and middle-aged adults have risen. A 2018 study by the American Cancer Society (ACS) found that men born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer than people born around 1950. The same study found that rates of colon cancer have risen roughly one to two percent annually from 1974 to 2013 among those aged 20 to 39, and that, among the same age group, rectal cancer rates have increased roughly three percent per year between 1980 and 2013.

But Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated colorectal surgeon Dr. Jorge Lagares-Garcia says that even with the distressing statistics, there’s reason to be encouraged. “With early detection, colorectal cancers can be treated and patients can be cured,” he says. And McLeod is a living example.

The importance of screening and being aware of potential symptoms is crucial, suggests Dr. Lagares, because colorectal cancer is often asymptomatic for years, and when symptoms do surface, they are often overlooked. “Some patients experience minor bleeding and don’t even think about it. Others have cramping, changes in bowel movements, or unexplained constipation or weight loss. All of those are red flags,” he says. “If you have any rectal bleeding or a substantial change in the nature of your bowel movements, see your doctor.”

Screening Guidelines
Given the trend in colorectal cancer skewing younger, the American Cancer Society has revised screening guidelines, lowering the starting age for regular colonoscopies from 50 to 45. In addition, says Dr. Lagares, “people need to know their family’s medical history and tune into their own body.”

Risk Factors
 Having a family history of colorectal cancer or of certain conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or familial adenomatous polyposis, can put you at increased risk, and men are 30% more likely than women to be diagnosed. Other risk factors include:

For more information, visit our Colorectal Cancer webpage or call (843) 402-CARE if you need a doctor referral.