Fast Facts:

  • Colon cancer is being found in younger people at almost double the rate it was just 2 decades ago. It’s usually more advanced and more deadly in young people. At the same time, it’s being found less often in people over 50.
  • Colon cancer in younger people acts differently than it does in older people.
  • The bacteria in the gut (microbiome) might play a big role in getting colon cancer. This includes influencing risk factors like inflammation and obesity.

Does it seem like you know more and more people getting diagnosed with colon cancer? If it does, you’re not alone. And the people you hear about getting diagnosed are probably younger than you might expect them to be.

Early onset colorectal cancer is colon or rectal cancer found in people younger than 50 years old. Early onset colorectal cancer is on the rise around the world. In 2020, The National Cancer Institute created a think tank of experts to figure out why so many young people are getting colon cancer. They looked at the patient profiles of young people who were diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer and found they look different than older people.

Younger people with colon cancer have many things in common with each other. The things they share make their colon cancers advance quicker, harder to treat and more deadly. One of the factors they have in common is abnormal gut bacteria, known as the microbiome.

Let’s take a look at what the microbiome is and how younger people experience colorectal cancer.

What are the statistics on early onset colon cancer?

Colon cancer was considered a disease of older people just a couple decades ago. In people over 50, awareness and screening have allowed polyps to be diagnosed earlier, before they have a chance to become cancerous. The incidence of colon cancer and the death rate has gone down in this age group.

That’s not the case with younger people, however. Because screening isn’t recommended before 45 years of age, many young people don’t even think about colon cancer. Here are some concerning statistics about early onset colon cancer:

  • Colon cancer in younger people now accounts for 10% of all colon cancer cases.
  • Since 2012, colon and rectal cancer has increased almost 2% every year.
  • When colon cancer is diagnosed in younger people, it’s more advanced and harder to treat than in older people.
  • By 2030, colon cancer is expected to be the #1 cause of cancer death in people under 50 years of age.
  • People with early onset colorectal cancer share several factors in common.

What do young people with colon cancer have in common?

Scientists researching early onset colon cancer have found people share three things in common that are interrelated:

  1. Diet: people who get early onset colon cancer tend to eat more processed food. They eat fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. Highly processed meats and fat are associated with higher rates of many types of cancer, including colon cancer. People who eat more calories from highly processed foods tend to be overweight or obese, which is also a risk factor for many cancers. In young people with colon cancer, over half were overweight and 17% were obese. Sugar, especially from processed food, has been shown to lead to chronic inflammation, insulin resistance and damage to the gut lining. Sugar is also thought to feed cancer cells once they develop.
  2. Inflammation: Many people with cancer have a chronic inflammatory condition. Over 50% of young people with colon cancer have a chronic inflammatory gut condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis. Diet and obesity can make inflammation worse.
  3. Gut bacteria: Scientists have found that bacterial toxins from human intestines can cause colon cancer in mice. Those same toxins can cause inflammation. Overweight and obese people often have abnormal gut bacteria. 

Diet affects weight. Weight affects inflammation. Inflammation affects gut bacteria, which affects weight. Together, they can have an impact on developing early onset colon cancer.

So exactly, what is the microbiome?

You might hear the term “microbiome” a lot these days. Microbiome means all the bacteria found in your gastrointestinal tract, or gut. Doctors have calculated that there are more bacteria cells in your gut than all other types of cells in the rest of your entire body combined. 

These bacteria can help you break down food, make helpful chemicals and fight off bad bacteria and yeast. Doctors have even found that gut bacteria make neurotransmitters that can affect your mood and happiness. But, when the gut bacteria get out of balance, unhealthy bacteria can take over. 

How can gut bacteria reduce the risk of getting colon cancer?

Your gut is your first line of internal defense against many types of disease. A healthy gut microbiome can fight off bad bacteria that might make you sick. A healthy microbiome is also important for improving risk factors of colon and rectal cancer, including:

  • Improved chronic gut inflammation
  • Less bacterial toxin production in the gut
  • Healthier weight
  • Improved nutrient processing and absorption, including vitamins
  • Gut bacteria can impact how effective chemotherapy is

In our next article, we’ll talk about what you can do to make your microbiome as healthy as possible.

The bottom line:

Colorectal cancer is on the rise in younger people. It’s on track to be the most common cause of cancer death in people under 50 by 2030. Early onset colorectal cancer is diagnosed at a more advanced stage and is harder to treat than when it’s found in older people. The common factors seen with early onset colon cancer include diet, inflammation and gut bacteria. A healthy microbiome can improve inflammation, weight, chemotherapy effectiveness and nutrient availability. Routine screening isn’t recommended before the age of 45, but if you have any symptoms, talk to your doctor about getting checked right away. Check it for your family. Check it for your peace of mind. Checkit4Andretti! 


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