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Colorectal Cancer: A Preventable Common Cancer Affecting Younger Patients

Img of a microscope and some samples

Colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, is on the decline. However, while often diagnosed in patients over 50, there has been a recent dramatic increase in colorectal cancer in younger patients, with approximately 15 percent found in those under 50

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Thanks to regular screening through colonoscopy and early detection, colorectal cancer can be prevented and even cured so, no matter your age, it is good to know the symptoms and how to protect yourself. By having regular screenings that catch the disease in its earliest, most treatable stages, and by adopting healthy lifestyle habits, lowering ones cancer risk is possible.

Colorectal cancer begins when benign growths known as polyps turn malignant, sometimes taking 10 to 15 years before becoming cancer. Symptoms include changes in bowel habits for more than a few days, rectal bleeding, traces of blood in the stool, stomach pain or cramping, weakness, fatigue, decreased appetite and unexpected weight loss.

Risk factors for colorectal cancer include age as well as lifestyle habits. For instance, a diet high in red meat and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as obesity, tobacco, and heavy alcohol use, are all predisposed to developing the disease. People with a personal and family history of colorectal polyps or inflammatory bowel disease are also at a higher risk.

Screening tests can detect and remove precancerous polyps before they become cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk for colorectal cancer have a screening test beginning at age 50 and then every ten years until age 75. Men and women with colorectal cancer risk factors should speak with their physicians about starting screening at a younger age or being screened more frequently.

A colonoscopy is the most common screening test for colorectal cancer. During a colonoscopy, the doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a camera attached to examine the inner lining of the large intestine and remove any polyps.

In addition to regular screening, people can reduce their risk of developing colorectal cancer through lifestyle habits that include eating a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, maintaining a healthy weight, eliminating tobacco usage and limiting alcohol consumption.

Treatment for colorectal cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy as well as newer targeted procedures like immunotherapy. According to the National Institutes of Health, surgery can cure about 90 percent of colorectal cancers when found early. Even when multiple treatments are needed, many patients can be cured, especially when the cancer is diagnosed in its earlier stages.

One new treatment for patients with advanced colorectal cancer is Heated Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC), which combines surgery with intraoperative chemotherapy to reduce as much cancerous tissue as possible. Heating the chemotherapy drugs to a specific temperature increases the cancer-fighting ability and applying it directly to the site of surgery rather than intravenously can reduce some common chemotherapy side effects.

NewYork-Presbyterian’s Cancer Centers provide high-quality, comprehensive cancer care at convenient locations throughout the New York metropolitan area, Westchester and the Lower Hudson Valley in state-of-the-art, comfortable environments. Board certified medical oncologists collaborate with a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists to provide each patient with an individualized plan of care. The team frequently collaborates with the faculty at our academic medical centers, many of whom are world-class experts in their respective fields, to discuss our most complicated cases.

To learn more about colorectal cancer, visit nyp.org/cancer. To find a cancer specialist, call 877-NYP-WELL.