Henry Mayo warning of rise in early-onset colon cancer 

Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Valencia. 041621. Dan Watson/The Signal
Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Valencia. 041621. Dan Watson/The Signal
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It’s fairly common to be told to schedule a colonoscopy when approaching 50 years old, but new studies are showing that colon cancer rates are rising in younger people. 

According to Drs. May Lin Tao and Neel Mann with Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, colon cancer rates are rising by 30% globally for people under 50. But here’s the rub: The reason why is not yet known. 

“What’s alarming is that in folks that are under 50, or even substantially younger than that, so the 30 to 40 cohort, those rates are rising, which is sort of against the trend, if you will,” Tao said. “And generally speaking, we don’t expect cancers to be rising in young adults.” 

For those over 50, Mann said there’s been a decline in colorectal cancer — defined by the Centers for Disease Control as “a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control” — by about 3-5% every year, but that the increase in early onset colon cancer is alarming, to the tune of about 30% between 1990 and 2019. 

Henry Mayo is warning people of this phenomenon as part of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. 

So, what should people be doing? 

The most effective way to determine if you have colon cancer is to schedule a colonoscopy, Man said, as most people with early colon cancer are asymptomatic. The new recommended age to get your first screening is at 45, and then every 10 years thereafter. 

“By the time you have some symptoms, you already have a mass lesion that’s causing obstruction or bleeding or changing your bowel habits, which is why we emphasize screening so much to prevent the development of cancer,” Mann said. “But if you have new onset abdominal pain or a change in your typical bowel habits or there’s blood in your stool, or there’s a change in the caliber of your stool, we would highly recommend seeking that consultation from a gastroenterologist.” 

Why the world is seeing a rise in early onset colon cancer is a question that officials have yet to answer, both Mann and Tao said. One plausible theory is the global switch to a western diet in recent decades, meaning more carbohydrates and high-processed foods. Fewer fresh fruits and vegetables in a diet could also be a factor. 

“We don’t know whether a high-carb diet makes a difference, but if you look at it globally, like in Japan, which they have less of a Western diet — strong in fish and they eat a lot less processed food — but we’re still seeing an increase in that population as well,” Mann said. “So it kind of goes back to, ‘We don’t understand it all.’ We all like a neat, clean answer, but there are a lot of factors that are going on and probably even the combinations of different factors. So, not only your diet, but maybe there is some kind of underlying genetic or genomic issue that, paired with a certain kind of behavioral lifestyle, manifests itself like that.” 

Both Mann and Tao emphasized that eating less processed food — i.e. things you find at a gas station or convenience store — and replacing that with more fresh fruits and vegetables could help bring down the risk of early-onset colon cancer. Staying active and avoiding obesity were other recommendations provided. 

The good news that they shared is that 75-90% of colon cancers can be prevented with screening, but once symptoms start to show up, it could be too late. 

“The tagline would be that colon cancer is preventable if caught early enough,” Tao said. 

To learn more about colon cancer or to schedule a colonoscopy at Henry Mayo, visit tinyurl.com/yz42fzep. To speak with a patient support coordinator for digestive health, call 661-839-1842. 

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