In the past, doctors didn’t start cautioning their patients to get their yearly colonoscopy until age 50 or up. But today, that kind of thinking is being drastically reconsidered.
This is because colon cancer is very much on the rise in much younger populations and is being seen more and more in the 20-35-year age group and 35-45-year age groups.
The death rate from colon cancer is sharply increasing in the 20- 54-year age group as well, according to an August 2017 study. As the researcher on this study, Rebecca Siegel explains,
“People don’t think about colorectal cancer in young people. So, patients may delay seeing their doctors for symptoms, like rectal bleeding or persistent abdominal cramping.
And primary care doctors often attribute persistent symptoms to more common problems like hemorrhoids or constipation.”
That delay can allow cancers to grow, so they’re not found until the cancer is larger or has spread, at a later stage when the survival rate is not as high.”
Because of these rising trends in colon cancer across younger populations, it is wise to see a doctor about any troubling symptoms such as persistent stomach pain, changes in bowel movements, diarrhea alternating with constipation, narrowing stools, and blood in the stool.
Younger persons should also consider getting screened for colon cancer, especially if they have risk factors at work, especially a family history of colon cancer.
Today, there are three tests available, two of which are non-invasive, to make testing for colon and rectal cancers less intimidating but still effective.
Besides colonoscopies, two new tests are now available, free for most persons covered by insurance: virtual colonoscopies, which uses computed tomography (CT) colonography, a special X-ray machine to examine the colon.
There is also a $650 home test called Cologuard, which checks stool for elevated levels of altered DNA that could indicate cancer.
Many insurance companies offer this test without a co-pay, and all offer some type of colon cancer screening.
With these new, less invasive methods of screening for colon cancer, doctors are hoping their patients will feel more encouraged to get tested—get tested young and often throughout life, and hopefully catch colon cancer at the 0 stage where it can be eradicated and cured completely.
What is colon cancer?
Colorectal cancer, or colon cancer, is cancer that occurs in the tissues of the rectum or colon. Colon cancer typically starts in the intramucosal lining of the colon or rectum.
This is when colon cancer is still at stage 0—before it has even spread to the outer lining of the colon.
Although catching colon cancer at this early stage is ideal, many people don’t catch colon cancer until it has progressed to further stages, because doctors don’t frequently insist upon testing for colon cancer until a person is well into their late 40s or early 50s.
When discovered early, colon cancer is very curable and, at the least, very treatable.
Even at the latter stages, combination therapies such as surgery followed by chemotherapy can prove highly effective at eradicating cancer.
Today, colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths—approximately 500,000 a year.
Colon cancer symptoms and early signs of colon cancer
Symptoms of colon cancer can be mild in the early stages. However, changes in one’s bowel movements, keeping an eye out for changes in bowel movements, and monitoring stool for any signs of blood can help people identify colon cancer signs early and get tested.
Early colon cancer symptoms include all of the following:
Changes in bowel movements
The patient may notice diarrhea alternating with constipation, and a narrowing of stools.
This might include cramping, bloating, and feeling gassy.
Blood in the stool/rectal bleeding
Typically, patients will notice blood in the stool or on the toilet paper when they wipe.
This is not a symptom to be dismissed but is a common one blamed on hemorrhoids and not colon cancer, meaning the cancer is not caught early on and progresses.
Finding blood (either bright red or very dark) in your stool
Other signs of colon cancer
- Losing weight for no known reason, nausea or vomiting
- Weakness and fatigue
- Shortness of breath after activity
- A feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely.
Colon cancer symptoms in men and symptoms of colon cancer in women
Men are diagnosed with colon cancer more frequently than women, about 71, 860 cases to 65,000 in women in the U.S. in 2024.
According to Jeffrey Meyerhardt, MD, symptoms of colon cancer are typically the same, no matter what the sex or age of the patient.
What does colon cancer pain feel like?
This is a common question many people have in hopes they can identify colon cancer early and heal the disease before it progresses.
Typically, persons with colon cancer remember experiencing a feeling of having gas that is not relieved by passing gas, feeling bloated no matter what they eat or drink, and feeling a need to move the bowels even after going to the bathroom.
They also describe intermittent cramping in the belly and occasional nausea.
Colon cancer risk factors
The risk factors for colorectal cancer include, some of which are theorized at this time, such as eating a diet high in meat, including all of the following:
- A diet overly low in fiber
- Being of African American descent
- A diet high in packaged, processed meats (hot dogs, baloney)
- A diet high in red meat
- A family history of colon or rectal cancer
- Drinking—there is a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and colon cancer, especially beer drinking
- Lack of exercise/activity
- Low vitamin D
- Having gut disorders such as IBS, IBD, Crohn’s, or colitis
Colon cancer causes
Researchers are still uncertain as to what causes colon cancer, exactly. They know certain risk factors such as age, genetics, and race tend to increase susceptibility; however, skyrocketing rates of colon cancer in young persons of all races today are causing them to rethink previous suppositions.
Studies are underway to try to pinpoint other causes of colon cancer, such as pesticides, toxins in the environment, a diet high in certain meats or meats rich in hormones, genetically modified foods, a diet high in inflammatory seed oils (canola, corn oil), fat, sugar, or a diet too low in fiber are all suspected players in rising cancer rates.
Colon cancer prevention
There are all kinds of healthy lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your chances of developing colon cancer. Wise colon cancer prevention choices include:
- Abstaining from alcohol or limiting intake
- Avoiding toxins and pesticides as much as possible
- Have colon cancer screening done every one to three years after age 30 and earlier if colorectal cancer runs in your family
- Eat a high vegetable fiber diet, full of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables
- Try to eat a diet of mostly plants and some meat
- Limit fat intake and avoid trans fats
- Not smoking
- Make sure to get enough vitamin D in the diet
Colorectal cancer screening
Today, there are all kinds of colon cancer screening tests that can help to catch and identify colon cancer very early on, in the stage one or stage 0 phase, when cancer is still highly curable.
Colonoscopies: with this type of test, a long tube with a camera on it is used to take digital images of the entire colon and rectum, so the physician can spot cancerous cells and tumors and scrape them for testing.
Virtual colonoscopy: this test is non-invasive and uses a CT scan to examine the colon for tumors and cancerous cells.
Cologuard: This is a home stool test that checks for damaged DNA and altered levels that may indicate the presence of cancer in the bowels. Some insurance companies offer these to their clients with no copay!
Colon cancer treatment
Colon cancer treatment typically moves through several stages: diagnosis, staging, and treatment.
At this point, doctors use a colonoscopy or other non-invasive test to examine the colon to check for any evidence of cancer cells.
During a colonoscopy, for example, a long, slender tube is inserted into the colon. The tube is attached to a camera that projects a 3-d image of your colon onto a screen, where the doctor can check for suspicious, cancerous looking cells or affected tissues.
If any suspect areas are seen, the doctor will scrape some cells from the area and test these for the presence of cancer.
If colon cancer is detected, the doctor will then stage your colon cancer. What are the stages of colon cancer?
Stage 0. Stage 0 is the ideal stage to catch any cancer at. With colon cancer, stage 0 indicates that cancer has not yet spread to the outer layers of the colon or rectum, which means it is completely curable.
This earliest stage of colon cancer is also called intramucosal carcinoma or carcinoma in situ.
Stage I. At stage one, the prognosis is still very good. At this stage, the cancer is confined to the lining of the colon but hasn’t spread beyond the wall of the colon or rectum.
Stage II. With stage II colon cancer, cancer has now spread to the wall of the colon or rectum. It has not yet affected the lymph nodes or lymphatic system.
Stage III. At this third stage, colon cancer has spread to some lymph nodes near the colon but is not yet affecting other organs and the lymphatic system at large.
Stage IV. With stage four colon cancer, cancer has spread to other organs and throughout the lymphatic system.
In the treatment stage, chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery is used to remove cancer or destroy it and prevent spread to other organs.
Colon cancer treatment options
Treatment for colon cancer will depend upon the stage of cancer the patient is diagnosed as having, as well as the age of the patient and if any other health conditions might impact their ability to undergo chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.
Common treatments for colon cancer include:
Surgery is the most common form of treatment for colon cancer. There are several kinds of surgery that might be recommended.
Laparoscopic surgery is surgery to remove the cancerous cells or affected tissues from the body.
If the cancer is more severe, a complete colectomy (removal of the colon) may be required.
With radiofrequency ablation (RFA) or cryoablation, the surgeon will remove any tumors that have spread to other organs.
With these types of surgeries, extreme heat or cold is used to melt or freeze the tumors and remove them from the body.
Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer through drugs that destroy cancer cells and tumors.
The goal of chemotherapy is to disable cancer—preventing it from spreading, growing, and dividing.
When chemotherapy is administered, typically via IV or capsule, the drug enters the blood, where it makes its way to cancer cells to attack and destroy them.
With radiation, very high energy x-rays are used to destroy tumors and cancer cells. Typically, more than one radiation therapy session is required to destroy cancer completely.
Colon cancer prognosis
If colon cancer is caught early on, and proper treatment is administered, the outlook for survival is very good.
Several factors determine how effectively a person can recover from colon cancer and can increase or decrease their chances of cancer recurrence.
If cancer spread into the lymphatic system and how intensively it has impacted the lymph nodes, vessels, etcetera.
Our lymphatic system is an intricate system of nodes, glands, and vessels. This system is like the control center for our immune system, protecting us from diseases of all kinds, including cancer.
Therefore, with colon cancer, as with any cancer, the more the lymphatic system is impacted, the greater the chances of cancer recurrence.
The stage of cancer
Colon cancers caught at stage 0 and 1 has an almost full chance of complete recovery.
Catching colon cancer at this stage is ideal. However, colon cancer symptoms can be quite mild at this stage.
Because the chance of death increases at every stage of colon cancer, and treatment becomes increasingly harder on the body, via chemotherapy or surgery, being vigilant about colon cancer screening is highly recommended. Only 8% of persons with stage IV colon cancer are alive after five years.
If cancer has spread
When colon cancer spreads to other organs, such as the pancreas, kidneys, liver, or lungs, radiation and chemotherapy are often needed to prevent further spread to other organs. Mortality rates increase as cancer continues to impact more organs.
Quality of the surgery
The later the stage of the colon or rectal cancer the cancer is caught at, of course, the more intensive the forms of treatment that will have to be used to fight cancer, such as radiation, chemotherapy, etcetera).
It may take several procedures or more to eradicate the cancer. Surgeries can be quite difficult with rectal cancers and often, no matter what stage of cancer, the patient has to go through chemo or radiation.
Colon cancer survival rate
All cancer survival rates are described in five-year survival rate terms, no matter what cancer.
A 5-year survival rate is those percentage of people diagnosed with this form of cancer and this stage of that cancer who received treatment five years ago and are still alive today.
Only people who began getting treatment at that five-year mark are used to create these statistics.
The survival rate for colon cancer can be very good if the cancer is caught early, especially if it is caught in the stage I phase.
The five-year survival rate for cancer caught at stage I is 92% in fact. If the cancer is caught in stage 0, which would be highly fortunate, cancer remains isolated to mere cancer cells that have collected in the innermost lining of the colon.
Therefore, the tumor and surrounding tissue can be removed and the patient is 100% cured.
The 5-year survival rates for other stages of colon cancer are:
- Stage IIA colon cancer = 87%
- Stage IIB colon cancer = 63%
- Stage IIIA colon cancers = 89%
- Stage IIIB colon cancer = 69
- StageIIIC = 53%
Metastatic, or stage IV colon cancers, have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 11%
Colon cancer is still treatable at the fourth stage.
Colon cancer is on the rise in increasingly younger persons. Today, colon cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer death in the United States, after lung cancer.
People under fifty are typically not encouraged to get colon cancer testing and many doctors are not as encouraging as they need to be in promotion of colon screening.
Likewise, many persons who complain to their doctor of symptoms such as diarrhea and blood in the stool are considered for many other conditions first, such as hemorrhoids and gut issues such as Crohn’s and IBS—and, therefore, the cancer is often not detected until it is in the 3rd or 4th stage, at which point it can spread and risk of death is very real.
Today, there are all kinds of colon cancer tests available both at home and that your doctor can perform without invasive procedures.
Although researchers are not yet certain what is causing colon cancer rates to rise in younger populations, it is quite possible that an increasingly toxic world and food supply most likely are to blame—factors of which we have only so much control.
We all have to breathe, after all, and we can only limit our exposure to toxins to a certain extent.
Therefore, you must be proactive today and insist upon measures to protect the health of you and your family—no matter what stage of life.