Colorectal Cancer Rates Rising Among Children, Teens

Colorectal Cancer Rates Rising Among Children, Teens

Colorectal cancer rates among children as young as 10 have risen significantly during the past two decades, new research shows.

The study, which was presented in May at the Digestive Disease Week 2024 conference, found that incidence rates of colorectal cancer in people ages 10 to 44 have increased between 1999 and 2020, with the biggest jumps seen in those between the ages of 10 and 24.

“The increasing rates among younger demographics highlight the need for enhanced vigilance and early detection strategies across all age groups,” Islam Mohamed, MD, study author and internal medicine resident physician at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, told Health.

This rise in colorectal cancer cases among young people has been well-documented in recent years. However, experts are still working to figure out what’s behind the trend.

“While there is a lot of research on this subject, we really don’t know why more young people are developing colorectal cancer now compared to 30 [or] 40 years ago,” Suneel Kamath, MD, a gastrointestinal oncologist at Cleveland Clinic, told Health.

This new study highlights the need for additional research on which factors could be influencing this steep rise in colorectal cancer among kids, teens, and young adults, experts agreed.

“The myth that someone can be too young to get cancer is just not true,” said Kamath. “We have to be vigilant for cancer, even among younger people, and we have to put in more funding to study our environment, diet, [and] lifestyle, so we can more quickly identify what other carcinogens are out there that are causing this rising rate of early-onset colorectal cancer.”

Here’s what experts had to say about the new research, what we know about colorectal cancer trends, and warning signs of the disease that should prompt a checkup, no matter your age.

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Colorectal cancer is still most common among older adults, but given reports of rising cases in younger people, Mohamed and his team wanted to further investigate incidence patterns in the U.S.

“Our research aims to examine trends within the younger age cohorts to elucidate these changing dynamics,” he explained.

For the study, his team analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Wonder database, which offers publicly available data on mortality, cancer incidence, census data, vaccinations, and more. They tracked colorectal cancer incidence rates between 1999 and 2020 among people in seven different age cohorts, spanning from ages 10 to 44.

Mohamed’s team found that rates rose across the board in all age groups during this time, but that younger demographics saw a sharper uptick in cases.

Though the percentage increases were steepest in those between the ages of 10 and 24, it’s important to note that middle-aged and older adults were still more likely to get colorectal cancer—incidence rates in this age group just rose at a slightly slower pace.

For example, in 1999, about 14.6 in 100,000 people ages 40–44 developed colorectal cancer. In 2020, that number was 20 in 100,000. For the age 15–19 age group, incidence changed from 0.3 in 100,000 to 1.3 in 100,000 during that same time period.

Though researchers are still trying to figure out why case incidence is rising, the known risk factors for colorectal cancer are thought to be the same across both older and younger populations, Kamath said. They include obesity, a diet high in processed foods and red meats, sedentary lifestyle, excessive alcohol consumption, and smoking cigarettes, he explained.

However, these established risk factors for colorectal cancer don’t entirely explain the increasing incidence in people under age 45, Hina Saeed, MD, deputy director of radiation oncology at the Lynn Cancer Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, told Health.

“These factors alone can’t explain the entire trend,” Saeed, who was not involved in the study, explained. “It’s suggested that environmental factors and certain genetic conditions such as Lynch syndrome, or a family history of colorectal cancer could play a role.”

Though this new study and others like it are concerning, they don’t yet provide enough context to suggest children need to be screened for colorectal cancer.

“While the number of cases of colorectal cancer in young people has been going up steadily over 20 to 30 years, it is still not frequent enough for widespread screening to make sense,” Kamath said. “However, we can do a few things.”

In addition to investing in research on colorectal cancer risk factors in young people, people need to be more aware about the disease in general.

“We can educate the public—and the medical community, especially those in primary care—that symptoms like blood in the stool, constipation that goes on for months, thin stools, [and] unexplained weight loss should be investigated with a colonoscopy, even in young people,” Kamath said.

Though guidelines recommend people start getting colonoscopies at age 45, having more open conversations about colorectal cancer can help people figure out if they need to start getting screened at a younger age, Kamath added.

Because so many people shy away from sharing information related to their colorectal health, there’s a good chance that a significant amount of people should be getting early colorectal cancer screenings, but don’t know it.

“I don’t think most people share with their family members that they have had polyps removed, [and] many people don’t share with their family that they had cancer,” Kamath said. “The reality is more of the population is high-risk for cancer and needs screening than we even realize. There are a lot of people that we could screen sooner and prevent these early-onset cancers.”

The ways in which doctors address colorectal cancer risk in young people need to be modified, Saeed said. But experts aren’t quite sure what this looks like just yet.

“The rising rates of colorectal cancer among young people [suggest] that colorectal cancer is not just a disease of older adults,” she explained. “Strategies for prevention, treatment, and survivorship may need to be tailored for younger populations.”

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