Those born from 1990 onwards have double the risk of bowel cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer when compared with people born in 1950.
Bowel cancer is one of the deadliest cancers in the under 50 age group. Early onset bowel cancer patients are more likely to be diagnosed when the disease is more difficult to treat (at stage III or IV). We know that early detection of this cancer is key, and earlier screening will save lives.
Obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and physical inactivity is a risk factor for bowel cancer in older people, so it is likely responsible for early onset of this cancer.
Other risk factors include a diet high in red and processed meats and fats, and a diet low in fruit and vegetables. The increasing prevalence of metabolic disorders may play a role as well as inflammation caused by diet, bacteria or inflammatory bowel disease. It is also thought that certain gut bacteria may promote the growth and spread of the cancer.
The rising rates of early onset bowel cancer may also be due to the fact that we are investigating more, especially now that we know bowel cancer is no longer an older person’s disease.
This worrying trend emphasises the need for heightened vigilance and proactive measures. Discussion around the risk factors of bowel cancer with patients under 50 years is becoming an increasingly important one.
We can help educate and encourage younger adults to adopt a healthy lifestyle to reduce their risk. There is no evidence to support the use of probiotics in preventing bowel cancer, and the dietary changes mainly focus on avoiding processed foods, but a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables (fibre) is ideal. Being active, maintaining a healthy weight, drinking in moderation, not smoking and seeing a doctor when they are experiencing persistent symptoms are all important. Symptoms may include a change in bowel habits, blood in their poo, unexplained abdominal pain or weight loss.
We recommend screening from 45 years especially if there is a family history and they are not already having a colonoscopy for other reasons.