Colorectal cancer is on the rise in millennials

Dr. Joseph Fiorito, chair of the gastroenterology department at Danbury Hospital.Photo: Western Connecticut Health Network
Dr. Joseph Fiorito, chair of the gastroenterology department at Danbury Hospital.Photo: Western Connecticut Health Network

If you’re like most people, you can’t help but make that face when you hear the word colonoscopy.
If current trends continue for the nation’s No. 2 cancer killer, that disfigured facial expression of discomfort and resignation may no longer be the sole domain of the 50-and-older population.
The increased rates of colorectal cancer among the under-50 population has been on such a steady increase that some physicians are advising 30-something patients to get screened now - especially if there are even the slightest symptoms.
“This is a call to action, which is quite alarming, that the millennials need to be aware of more and more,” said Dr. Joseph Fiorito, chief of the gastroenterology department at Danbury Hospital. “It’s tragic when a 30-year-old gets colon cancer that’s metastasized to the liver.”

If Fiorito’s concern sounds more heightened than a typical colon cancer awareness month message, it’s because it is.
Already the second most prevalent type of cancer in the country and the second deadliest, colorectal cancer killed 50,000 people in 2018, even though overall diagnoses and deaths from the disease have been dropping steadily for years due to better screening and treatment, according to the American Cancer Society.
A breakdown of the numbers by age shows that while diagnoses and deaths from colon and rectal cancer are dropping year after year for older Americans, the inverse is true for the under 50 population, who were always thought to have a reduced risk.
There are too many variables to attribute the increased colorectal cancer rates among 20- to 49-year-olds to a single factor, researchers say.
But a recent study found that along with unhealthy eating habits and obesity, excessive television viewing, such as binge-watching Netflix, increases the risk of colorectal cancer in young and middle-aged people.
“Independent of exercise and obesity, prolonged sedentary TV viewing time, a surrogate for a more inactive lifestyle, was associated with increased risk of young-onset (colorectal cancer),” wrote a team of researchers in the November issue of the peer-reviewed journal, JNCI Cancer Spectrum. “These findings provide further evidence on the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle.”
Fiorito agrees.
“Absolutely — we have national figures now that clearly document the increase of detection and death in people under 50,” Fiorito said. “Multiple studies show that this is no longer a question.”

The good news is colorectal cancer is preventable and treatable if people can overcome their aversion to a colonoscopy — a scoping procedure that allows a physician to examine the colon lining and remove polps before they grow into cancer.
“They cringe, they make faces, and they say, ‘Nobody is going to do that to me,’” Fiorito said, describing the reaction he gets. “But we are trudging forward, trying to get more and more people screened.”
He added it was important for people to take any change in bowel behavior as a potential warning sign, and get screened.
“Anything unusual cannot be ignored by the patient or the doctor just because the person is young,” Fiorito said. 203-731-3342