A lot of people want to know “the most likely age” a disease might happen. Getting screened, eating healthy, exercising and minimizing alcohol and tobacco can take some of the joy out of life. Especially if a disease might not strike until later in life. You might think of colon cancer as a disease of older people who have a lot of risk factors. But the truth is colon cancer can happen to anyone, even really young people.
What age can you get colon cancer?
The average age of being diagnosed with colon cancer is 68 for men and 72 for women. The “average age” is a little misleading and doesn’t tell the whole story. The average age at diagnosis has been getting younger for the past couple of decades, and doctors aren’t sure why. It could be because screening in older people is catching polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer. Or it could be that there are more chemicals and toxins in the environment. Or maybe it’s because we’re more sedentary and eating more processed food at an earlier age.
Most cases of colon cancer still happens in people over 50 years old, but about 12% of cases are diagnosed in people under 50. Young men and women in their 20’s are diagnosed with colon cancer every year. As a matter of fact, the rate of people under 50 getting colon cancer has gone up about 2% a year since 1995. The rate for people over 50 has actually gone down about 3% a year during that same time. Screening tests like colonoscopies are thought to be one of the biggest reasons for the drop in those over 50.
So, who is most likely to get colon cancer?
Anyone can get colon cancer, but some people are more likely to get it than others. In an earlier blog post we talked about risk factors for getting colon cancer. It’s worth mentioning them again here, because they help us understand who is most likely to get colon cancer. A “risk factor” doesn’t cause cancer all by itself. Risk factors just mean that you have a greater chance of developing a disease than someone who doesn’t have them. Some people have lots of risk factors and never get cancer. Other people might not have any risk factors at all and still get that terrible diagnosis.
You have a greater chance of getting colon cancer if:
- You are male: Men have about 30% higher rate of colon cancer than women.
- You are Black or Native American/Alaskan: White Americans are about 30% less likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer than Black Americans.
- You are over 50 years old: The older you are, the higher your risk.
- You have a lifestyle that puts you at risk; Obesity, smoking and alcohol overuse are all risk factors. So is being sedentary and eating a highly processed diet.
- You have particular genetic syndromes: If colon cancer “runs in your family,” you may familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch Syndrome. These are genetic conditions that are passed down through generations.
- You have certain types of inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.
Can I still get colon cancer if I don’t have any symptoms or risk factors?
You might not be overweight. You may have never smoked or drank alcohol. You might even eat 5-7 servings of vegetables and walk 2 miles every day. But you could still get colon cancer. Risk factors are only part of the puzzle of who gets this disease. Genetics are part and so is the environment. Every day that you get older, your risk goes up a little bit, even if you try to do everything “right.”
It’s important to remember that many people don’t have any symptoms at all in the early stages of colon cancer. In order to catch colon cancer before it gets too far along, you should start getting screened at age 45 according to national guidelines. If you have other risk factors, talk to your doctor about getting screened earlier.
No matter what your age is or whether you have risk factors, you need to talk to your doctor right away if you have any symptoms that go along with colon cancer. Things like blood in your stool, bloating, weight loss, abdominal pain or feelings of fullness in your belly might be nothing…but they could also be the first clues of colon cancer.
You can get an idea of your individual risk by using the National Cancer Institute’s Colorectal Cancer Risk Assessment Calculator. Just answer a few questions online and you can print out the assessment to take to your doctor. It’s an easy way to start a difficult discussion.
The bottom line:
It’s impossible to predict at what age someone will develop colon cancer, or whether they’ll ever get it. Some people have lots of risk factors and never develop the disease. The average age is getting younger for men and women, and you’re more at risk as you get older, especially if you’re male, Black or have other risk factors. Regular screening beginning at age 45, and up until age 75, is recommended for all Americans. Check it as soon as you turn 45. Check it for someone you love. Check it for yourself. #Checkit4Andretti.
- The average age of being diagnosed with colon cancer is getting younger.
- You’ll have a better chance of surviving colon cancer if you catch it early, before it spreads to other parts of the body.
- Since it is impossible to know for sure who will get colon cancer, every American between the ages of 45-75 should be screened regularly.