A recent study just revealed a rise in the rate of colon and rectal cancer in those people under the age of 55. That includes Generation X and Millennials. Anyone born in the 1990s has twice the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer as someone born in 1950s. Since screening for colon cancer is not typically recommended until someone turns 50, many of these cancers are being detected in advanced states, making them much harder to treat.
At this point, the researchers claim that they cannot determine the cause of the rising rate of these colon and rectal cancers in this younger population. Doctors worry that too many of these people are ignoring the early signs of colon cancer, including consistent bloating, cramps, diarrhea, constipation, blood in the stools, or weight loss. They are also concerned that too many people are ignorant of the medical conditions that are associated with a higher risk for these cancers.
People with GI disorders are individuals with increased risk of these cancers. If you have inflammatory bowel disease or ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, your risk of colon cancer and rectal cancer is significantly higher. If you have a family history of GI polyps or colon cancer, your risk also rises. If your race is African American or Jewish of Eastern Europe descent, your risk is higher. And if you are overweight or obese or diabetic, your risk likewise dramatically rises.
However, those associated conditions only explain a small fraction of the rising cases of colon cancer and rectal cancer. What are the other causative factors? The studies cannot provide specific answers. From my perspective, there are several likely causative sources. Our younger populations of Generation X and Millennials are not following the recommendation from government’s dietary guidelines. After all, most cancers are diet related and often diet-caused.
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued in late 2015, recommend limiting calories from sugars and saturated fats and reducing sodium intake while shifting your diet to more plant-based foods with an increased variety of vegetables and fruits. For proteins, the guidelines recommend more fish and less meat, especially red meat. The guidelines encourage eating more nuts and seeds. The guidelines suggest less alcohol consumption. This collective dietary approach reduces the risk of all cancers, including colon cancer and rectal cancer.
For colon cancer and rectal cancer, researchers know that a diet high in red meats (beef / pork / lamb) and a diet high in processed meats (hot dogs or luncheon meats for a sandwich) increase those two cancers. Researchers also know that cooking meat at high temperatures (frying, boiling, grilling) also leads to a higher risk of colon cancer and rectal cancer. So, an improved diet and a change in cooking habits can lower the risk of these two cancers.
Dietary recommendations are important. Two-thirds of our population are currently overweight and therefore at a higher risk. But exercise is also a key factor. Only 20% of our younger population exercises at a sufficient level. That’s why 50% of them are projected to develop chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer – including colon cancer and rectal cancer.
There is another lifestyle component related to exercise. Generation X and the Millennials are too sedentary. Too many hours are spent working in front of computer screens. Studies show that the more hours sitting, the worse your health. Some studies even equate greater hours of sitting to higher risks of cancer. That is why many companies offer desks with variable heights for the computer. You would be well served to stand more often and for longer periods of time instead of just sitting in front of your computer.
There is another lifestyle component that too many Generation X and Millennials overlook. That is the hours of sleep. The fewer the hours of sleep – especially the fewer the hours of sleep before midnight – the greater the chance for a reduced immune system, which is the starting point for all cancers, including colon cancer and rectal cancer. If you need a clear example: Young people who work the night shift, or even rotating shifts, have the highest risks of cancer. They fail to obtain sufficient sleep for rejuvenation and repair – protection against cancer.
You should keep in mind that one cancer often leads to another cancer. If you develop a cancer, it means that your immune system is out-of-balance. Most people receive treatment for the cancer, but they do not make a sustained attempt to improve their immune system through dietary changes, exercise changes, or lifestyle changes. You also should realize that cancer treatment often leads to other cancers. People who have received radiation treatment to the prostate or testicles show a much higher risk of later colon cancer or rectal cancer.
So, for our younger populations who are developing colon cancer and rectal cancer at a much higher rate than our older populations, what can do you to protect yourself and reduce your risk? You can improve your diet and reduce your weight. You can develop a better exercise program. You can stand more, sit less. You can make an effort to improve your immune system by reducing stress and gaining earlier and longer sleep. Reducing alcohol and/or drugs also helps.
Lastly, you can start colon and rectal cancer testing at an earlier age, well before the current recommendation of age 55. You do not have to schedule a colonoscopy. A stool sample is growing more popular. Yes, a stool sample is better at detecting cancer growth that has already begun, but it is much better than doing nothing. And treatment, if you catch these two cancers, is becoming more effective.
Take the right steps and reduce your risk of all cancers …
Especially colon cancer and rectal cancer …