The Health Issue Young Women Aren't Paying Enough Attention To

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Obviously, R29 is a big fan of toilet talk. But new research suggests that we should be paying even more attention to our bowel health because, after decades of declining rates, colon and rectal cancers are on the rise again in younger people.
For the study, published online today in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers analyzed data from the government's long-running Surveillance Epidemiology and End Result (SEER) program. They zoomed into data collected between 1974 and 2013 in nine areas of the country. That gave them information for 490,305 patients who were at least 20 years old and diagnosed with colorectal cancer during their lives.
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From there, the researchers were able to calculate the rates of colorectal cancer diagnoses based on when patients were born.
Results confirmed that, overall, rates of colorectal cancers have been declining in the U.S. for the past few decades. They were at their lowest for those born around 1950. But the rate of those cancers is also increasing among millennials: Those born circa 1990 have nearly double the risk for colon cancer and quadruple the risk for rectal cancer compared to those born circa 1950.
It's not totally clear why the rates are rising in this population, says George Chang, MD, professor of surgical oncology and chief of the Colon and Rectal Surgery Section at MD Anderson Cancer Center, who was not affiliated with the study. But he says the rate at which they're rising is "relatively alarming."
Of course, this doesn't mean we're all destined to have colorectal cancer (about one in 23 women are expected to have the disease in their lifetimes). Rates among younger people are still low. But it does suggest that we should expand our idea of who can develop the condition and be more proactive about preventing it.
One major issue here is that, although screening is recommended for adults beginning at age 50, it's really not routine for anyone younger than that. But whether or not we should lower the age at which screenings start is still up for debate.
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"The primary mode of screening is colonoscopy," Dr. Chang explains. "While it has benefits, it also has some risks." The major upside to colonoscopy is that it can detect colon polyps. These little bunches of cells are not cancerous, but can become cancerous. "If you detect a polyp, you can remove that polyp and prevent a cancer from ever forming," Dr. Chang says.
On the other hand, colonoscopy requires a lot of prep work that patients generally aren't too excited about. (Seriously, how pumped would you be to go through all this?) Colonoscopies also require you to be sedated, which comes with its own list of potential risks. And there's the small but present risk for bowel perforation during a colonoscopy.
With all of that in mind, Dr. Chang says it's a little early to think about lowering the age to start screening. But if you have a relative who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at an early age, your doctor will recommend you start your screenings earlier on.
There are also other ways for younger people to stay on top of their bowel health: We do know that obesity significantly increases your risk for colorectal cancer, which makes it even more important to stay physically active and eat a balanced diet (with plenty of fiber!).
Beyond that, Dr. Chang says, "Pay attention to your symptoms." It's easy for us to explain away symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, or blood in the stool as self-diagnosed IBS or hemorrhoids. But if those symptoms don't go away, it's definitely time to check in with your doctor. You can rest assured that you won't be the only one bringing the bathroom convo into her office.
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