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Redefining the Colorectal Cancer Patient

When you’re in your 20s, your biggest concerns should be what classes you plan to take during the spring semester of college, which awesome apartment you want to live in, or maybe whether or not you should ask your longtime crush on a date, etc.—not colorectal cancer.

Yes, you read that correctly, colorectal cancer. Young adults—those ages 20 to 39—are now more likely than their parents were at that age to develop the deadly disease. To help shed light on this important issue, we sat down with Dr. Lord to get a better understanding of this growing health concern.

What do the statistics say?
Even though the number of colorectal cancer cases has been decreasing overall, one age group—individuals born after 1990—continues defying the odds. “In fact, one study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, shows that young adults, 28-years-old and younger, have double the risk of developing colon cancer and four times the risk of developing rectal cancer (than previous generations did at the same age),” notes Brad Lord, MD, a gastroenterologist affiliated with Gwinnett Medical Center. “On top of that, all twentysome-things—who start out with an elevated risk for colorectal cancer—will only continue to add to this risk as they age.”

What exactly does this mean?
Beginning in 1950, the risk for developing colorectal cancer began to grow (and grow) with each passing year. “This means that for each generation born after 1950, their risk is just a little higher than the year before,” explains Dr. Lord. “The scariest part about this gradual rise is the fact that it’s difficult to identify one clear change or new risk factor that could be responsible for these growing statistics.”

What are the potential culprits?
Some of the typical risk factors for colorectal cancer don’t necessarily apply in this case—being over 50 years old, having a history of colorectal polyps or inflammatory bowel disease, or smoking for a prolonged period of time. So what makes early-onset colorectal cancer different? Some experts believe that this increase in colorectal cancer cases has mirrored the rising number of young adults that are overweight or obese. “That’s because many of the same factors that contribute to obesity—sedentary lifestyle and eating heavily-processed foods—also contribute to colorectal cancer,” emphasizes Dr. Lord.

“Yet another explanation may be the recent increase in the number of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) diagnoses,” describes Dr. Lord. This increase isn’t one that’s just happening in the U.S., either; it’s a change being felt worldwide. “The most common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—both of which can increase colorectal cancer risk,” adds Dr. Lord.

To further complicate matters, the symptoms of colorectal cancer, IBD and irritable bowel syndrome, can be too close for comfort. “When only evaluating the symptoms, these conditions look almost identical,” says Dr. Lord. “The only way to really know what you’re dealing with is to perform additional procedures, like rectal exams, X-rays or colonoscopies.”

Stop should-ing yourself.
“The truth is being proactive about your colorectal health is no longer a choice, or something you should do, it’s something you need to do,” emphasizes Dr. Lord. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter if you have a family history or not (75% of colorectal cancer patients don’t have a family history of the disease). The only thing that matters is that you get screened for colorectal cancer after age 50, whether or not you notice any digestive abnormalities or symptoms.

The best place to start is simply by talking to your primary care provider—who may refer you to a specialist for additional support, information and insight. You can also utilize convenient resources, like GMC’s free colorectal cancer screening kit, which detects the presence of blood in stool and could indicate the need for additional diagnostics.

Don’t put off prevention.
This year alone, 140,000 adults will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer. But with an extensive array of resources available to you through Gwinnett Medical Center, you can learn more about colorectal cancer, screen for it and treat it—the sooner the better. Get started with colorectal cancer prevention today by ordering your free screening kit online by visiting or by calling 678-312-5000 and select option1.