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Colo-rectal Cancer and Younger Patients

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In one of my earlier blogs, I made reference to the importance of exercise, a diet high in fiber, low in sugar and fat, and a lifestyle that values mindfulness, close relationships and the avoidance of tobacco and excess alcohol. I spoke of the people on the Greek island of Ikaria, who enjoy unparalleled longevity and vigor with their embrace of this way of living. People like them, who live in the so called “Blue Zones” around our world, enjoy similar benefits. Well, here’s what can happen when you follow the opposite type of lifestyle…

Now, it seems, The National Cancer Institute has found an alarming rise in colon and rectal cancers in Gen X and millennial-aged people in our country. The big reasons for this appear to be:

  • First, diets that are high in refined sugars and carbohydrates, low in fiber and high in fat appear to be behind the increase in these cancers.
  • Second, the resultant obesity from high caloric intake and a sedentary lifestyle was cited by researchers as possible reasons for the increase.
  • Third, environmental toxins may also be playing a part.

Colon and rectal cancer in people over 55 years of age appears to be decreasing. This is probably due to better awareness and screening for the disease. But in younger people, where screening had traditionally not been as vigorous (except in certain at-risk groups, like people who have a family history of cancer or inflammatory diseases of the GI tract), the rise in cancers has come as a shock to many researchers. These findings, which were recently reported in the journal of The National Cancer Institute, have sounded alarm bells among doctors and other scientists who follow these conditions. It has even prompted some to call for earlier screening in these younger at-risk groups.

Traditionally, patients have been taught to report changes in bowel habits to their doctor. These include blood in the stool, change in the caliber of the bowel movement (particularly ‘pencil-thin” stools), mucus or other discharge, or any darkening or other unusual discoloration in the bowel movement. Testing patients for hidden blood in the stool has been a great help in reducing the progression of cancer in patients who have early-stage tumors. Colonoscopy screening has virtually revolutionized the diagnosis and treatment of colon and rectal cancer. But these new trends in young people are causing much discussion on how to deal with this newly found clinical information.

What has not changed are the recommendations that relate to better health and a reduction of many types of cancer in all age groups: a healthy body weight (usually meaning a Body Mass Index of less than 25)…daily aerobic exercise and weight training…a diet high in fiber and low in refined sugar and saturated fat…moderate alcohol consumption…and the avoidance of tobacco use. Since many younger people have poor diets and are addicted (through video games, computer and other screen time, etc.) to being sedentary, it will be an uphill battle to get people under 40 off their butts and onto their bikes, into the pool and onto the running track. Perhaps harder will be getting them off soda, junk food and other dietary abominations that are anathema to good health.

The incidence of cancer in people who live in the “Blue Zones” of the world is understandably low. Now more than ever, it is the time for younger people to decide to take action and reverse this surprising and unwelcome trend in cancer prevalence in our country.

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