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Colorectal Cancer: Young Adults Should Watch for These Red Flags

Paying attention to your body — especially when you go to the bathroom — could save your life. That’s because some of the earliest signs of deadly colorectal cancer are tied to your bowel habits. For young adults, it’s especially important because this cancer is occurring more often before you typically are screened.

Early-Onset Colorectal Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, the proportion of colorectal cancer cases occurring in people younger than 55 doubled from 1995 to 2019, from 11 percent to 20 percent, with many not diagnosed until advanced stages. Because of this alarming rise in early-onset colorectal cancer, researchers have focused on discovering symptoms that might give early warning signals of the disease.

First Signs of Colorectal Cancer

The new research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found four symptoms that appeared up to two years before a colorectal cancer diagnosis:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Ongoing diarrhea
  • Iron deficiency anemia

Don’t panic if you have any of these symptoms; they can be linked to other diseases or conditions, many of which are benign. However, you should not ignore any of these symptoms or pass them off as “normal.”

What To Do If You Have an Early Symptom

If you have one of the early symptoms of colorectal cancer, you should discuss it with your primary care physician so that its cause can be investigated. If you are having severe abdominal pain, uncontrollable diarrhea or profuse rectal bleeding, you need to go the emergency room to be evaluated.

Colorectal Cancer Screenings

Average-risk adults (no family history of colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or known genetic predisposition) should start screening at the age of 45. If you are at an elevated risk, then you need to be screened earlier. But remember, these guidelines pertain to those who are not having the above symptoms.

Several screening tests have been developed to find colorectal cancer before symptoms begin, when it may be more treatable. Some tests also allow adenomas and polyps to be removed before they become cancer. The National Cancer Institute considers these types of screenings to be effective and reliable:

  • Colonoscopy. In this test, your rectum and entire colon are examined using a colonoscope, a flexible lighted tube with a lens for viewing and a tool for removing tissue. A colonoscopy is considered the gold standard of colorectal cancer screening.
  • Stool tests. Both polyps and colorectal cancers can bleed, and stool tests check for tiny amounts of blood that cannot be seen.
  • Sigmoidoscopy. This test examines your rectum and sigmoid colon only using a sigmoidoscope, a flexible lighted tube with a lens for viewing and a tool for removing tissue.
  • Virtual colonoscopy. Also called computed tomographic (CT) colonography, this screening method produces pictures of your colon and rectum from outside your body.

When caught early, colorectal cancer can be curable with survival rates approaching those of the general population.

Although we are not entirely certain why we are seeing increased rates of colorectal cancer in young adults, there are things that you can do to lower your risk of colorectal cancer and many other cancers. These include:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a high-fiber diet, rich in grains, fruits and vegetables
  • Limiting processed foods, red meat and alcohol
  • Not smoking

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