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Here's what you need to know about colon cancer risks 

Here's what you need to know about colon cancer risks

It is a wake-up call for all of us. 

This week's deaths of "Cheers" actor Kirstie Alley, 71, and "The Phantom of the Opera" Broadway actor Quentin Lee, 34, brought colon cancer to the forefront. The deaths follow the demise of "Black Panther" star Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer in 2020, at the age of 43, and the stage 3 colon cancer treatment of baseball player Trey Mancini, who got his diagnosis on his 28th birthday two years ago when he played for the Baltimore Orioles. 

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society, and it is increasingly being found in younger adults. We all should be aware of our personal risk factors and screening guidelines as well as its symptoms. 

"The thing that is so incredible about the screening is that it is the only test in medicine that can actually prevent cancer," says Dr. Puja Berry, a WellSpan colorectal surgeon. "With a colonoscopy in particular, we are removing polyps, and some polyps go on to cause cancer." 

For the average person, with no family history, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults ages 45 to 75 be screened for colorectal cancer. 

"The starting age used to be 50 but it was lowered recently because colon cancer in patients younger than 50 is rising at a dramatic and alarming rate," said Berry, who has been involved in the care of colon cancer patients as young as 28. 

To put it in perspective, the American Cancer Society found people born in 1990 — who would be 32 years old this year — have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer compared to people born around 1950.  

Experts don't know exactly why colon cancer is increasing among younger adults, but they believe it may be due to the prevalence of certain risk factors such as diets higher in processed foods, red meat, and deli meats, as well as alcohol intake, smoking, and obesity, Berry said. In fact, the World Health Organization has listed obesity as a "carcinogen" for colon cancer. 

But for people like Mancini, a young professional athlete, another risk factor also was at work. His father had colon cancer in his 50s, so he had a family history of the disease. 

What are the best ways to protect yourself from colon cancer? Here are Berry's recommendations: 

  • If you are an average person, with no family history and no symptoms (more on that below), get screened for colon cancer starting at age 45. 

If you fit this description, you can choose between a colonoscopy, when a doctor uses a long flexible tube to look at the inside of the colon and rectum, or an at-home, mail-in colon cancer test, when a patient submits a stool sample that is tested for blood in the stool and/or DNA markers of colon cancer or precancerous polyps.  

  • If you have a first-degree blood relative (parent, sibling, or child) who was diagnosed with colon cancer under the age of 65, then you need to get your colonoscopy 10 years before the age that relative was diagnosed or at age 40, whichever comes first. 
  • Be aware of symptoms that require a checkup or testing. These include a change in your bowel habits, bloody or tarry stools, new and persistent abdominal pain, and unexpected weight loss. 

Talk to your doctor if you notice any of these signs. 

Want to know more about your risks for colon cancer? Take this risk assessment.