Colon cancer occurs in the large intestine, the lowest part of the digestive system. It’s grouped with rectal cancer into colorectal cancer, and these cancers affect 150,000 men and women in the United States annually. Colorectal cancers tend to grow slowly, beginning with small benign growths called polyps, and can be successfully treated in the early stages. Unfortunately, new research indicates that many younger patients with colon cancer are being misdiagnosed.
Currently, it’s recommended that all men and women have colon cancer screening beginning at age 50, and earlier if they have a family history of colorectal cancer. The gold standard of colorectal screening is the colonoscopy, which allows cancer to be diagnosed at an early stage, before it spreads. According to the National Cancer Institute, catching colon cancer before it has the chance to metastasize means a five-year survival rate of more than 90 percent, as opposed to lower than 10 percent if it’s not discovered before metastasis.
Because doctors don’t necessarily expect to see colon cancers in people under age 50, younger patients often have to visit more than one doctor in order to get a correct diagnosis. The idea that younger people don’t get colon cancer is an outdated one, and it’s incorrect. In fact, colorectal cancer rates decreased by 4.6 percent in people age 65 and older between 2009 and 2013, and decreased by 1.4 percent in people aged 50 to 64. For those under 50, the rate actually went up, increasing by 1.6 percent.
In the new survey, researchers communicated with young-onset patients and survivors to learn why it was difficult for them to be diagnosed, and what they experienced. Two-thirds of the patients reported having to see at least two doctors before getting the correct diagnosis, and some had to go to as many as four doctors. 71 percent were diagnosed at stage III or IV, while most patients over 50 are diagnosed at stage I or II. What’s particularly surprising about the failure of doctors to diagnose these cancers is that many of the patients had major risk factors for colon cancer. 30 percent had a family history of the disease, and 8 percent had Lynch syndrome, which is associated with a genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer.
A younger age for screening is not recommended because it would result in invasive colonoscopies on a typically low-risk group. Physicians need to be aware, though, of risk factors and symptoms that could indicate cancer, regardless of age. Early signs of colorectal cancer include constipation, rectal bleeding, blood in stool, bloating, abdominal pain, and fatigue.