There’s a saying in medicine: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras.”
It’s a simple reminder for doctors to consider that symptoms are more often caused by common illnesses rather than rare ones.
But colon cancer — a once rare disease among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s — is showing a slow but steady upswing among millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996).
Routine screenings can detect colon cancer before symptoms appear (when treatments are most effective), but they don’t typically begin until age 45. And when symptoms appear in younger people, they’re likely to be attributed to something else, allowing the cancer to progress without treatment.
But there is hope. With new discoveries, doctors are paying closer attention to the possibility of colon cancer among younger patients. Not every case of colon cancer can be prevented, but millennials can take steps to stack the odds in their favor.
We’re here with our expert, general surgeon Michele Malit, DO, with five tips to help you stay proactive and protect yourself against colon cancer:
1. Be Vigilant About Your Symptoms
Talk to your doctor about any potential symptoms so you can work together to rule out the worst-case scenario. Watch out for the following:
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Abdominal pain and bloating
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss
Dr. Malit reminds us, “It’s important to build a relationship with a primary care provider and stay on top of your annual wellness exams and screenings. Some patients find it embarrassing to talk about their digestive symptoms. Having a doctor that you trust and who knows you can make that conversation easier.”
2. Keep an Eye on Risk Factors
Just like smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer, there are behaviors and habits that can increase your risk of developing colon cancer. Here are some good habits you can focus on to keep your colon healthy:
- Don’t smoke
- Eat a healthy, high-fiber diet
- Exercise regularly
- Limit alcohol use
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Minimize consumption of processed foods/meats
“Unfortunately, one of the mysteries of the increase in colon cancer risk for young adults is there is not a clear association with an established risk factor,” says Dr. Malit. She continues, “Taking steps to form healthy habits now will help protect you from the disease as an older adult.”
3. Be Persistent
Some physicians have lowered their age recommendations for colon screenings, but you should feel comfortable voicing your concerns or requesting a screening yourself. If you have unusual symptoms or feel like something’s not right, don’t hesitate to ask for a specialist referral.
Dr. Malit says, “It may help to ask your doctor about whether the newest tools to diagnose colon cancer might work for you. While a colonoscopy remains the gold standard, new technology is emerging as alternatives for some people, including blood tests.”
4. Be Proactive, and Don’t Panic
One study found the risk of colon cancer for adults born in 1990 is twice that of an adult born in 1950. But the risk is still a small one.
“Even though colon cancer incidence is increasing in the younger population, most colon cancers are diagnosed in patients in their 60s, with 90% of cases still occurring in people older than 50,” clarifies Dr. Malit.
Most abdominal symptoms are not caused by colon cancer. But it’s always best to let a gastroenterologist guide you.
5. Learn Your Risk
Statistics can estimate health risks for large groups of people, but each individual is unique with their own strengths and challenges.
Though current guidelines suggest most adults should have their first colonoscopy at age 45, that recommendation changes for people with relatives who have/had colon cancer. Dr. Malit explains, “It’s especially important for people with family members who had colon cancer before they were 50 to get screened even earlier. Many of these people should get a colonoscopy 10 years before their relative was diagnosed.”
Moreover, some medical groups suggest that Black individuals should begin screening around age 40 as they have an increased risk of the disease.
Your Partner in Digestive Health
For millennials, there is not yet enough medical evidence to suggest that healthy people without symptoms should be tested for colon cancer. Though rare, there are potential risks posed by colonoscopies, and it’s not yet clear if they would outweigh the benefits of more tests in younger people.
In the meantime, the best way to lower your risk of any cancer is to form a relationship with a doctor who can help you stay vigilant for signs and symptoms. While the thought of cancer can be frightening, knowing you’re doing all you can to protect your health will help you feel more empowered.
To learn more about how we can support your lifelong digestive health, schedule a visit with Dr. Malit today.