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In 1998, Baylor University Medical Center (BUMC) published an article looking at colon cancer in patients 40 years and younger. This study surveyed 64 patients to identify risk factors and survival outcomes in this population.  

Researchers saw common symptoms included bleeding, pain and weight loss. Additionally, risk factors, such as inflammatory bowel disease and family history of colorectal cancer and/or polyps, were seen in almost half of the number of patients. Researchers previously thought that in order for young patients to develop colorectal cancer, they would have to have these known risk factors. However, this study proved over 40 percent of the patients did not present any of these risk factors. In terms of survival, the strongest indicator was cancer stage at diagnosis; 50 percent of patients presented cancers at advanced stages. 

Young-onset: Present and Future

When the article was published, there were approximately 155,000 new colorectal cancer cases and an estimated 60,000 deaths reported each year. Almost 20 years later, the American Cancer Society estimates 136,830 new cases and an estimated 50,000 deaths in 2016. Although this indicates progress, (attributed to improved screening and treatment programs), the numbers show an opposing trend in the under 50 population.

When BUMC published this article, between 2-6 percent of all colorectal cancer patients were under 40. Today, this number has increased to nearly 11 percent of colon cancer patients, and 18 percent of rectal cancer patients are under 50. Though we have made great strides in research, advanced treatment and higher survival rates, more needs to be focused on this population. This study shows young onset colorectal cancer has puzzled researchers for years—we need more research to better understand this disease and how we can combat it.

 “From these research findings, I found it intriguing that of the 64 patients between 16 and 40, 40 percent did not have a family or personal history of colon cancer, which indicates these cases were sporadic,” Patient Advocate Medical Consultant and survivor Dr. Laura Porter said. “This information is consistent with what we see today, except the incidence of sporadic cases is increasing. More research into possible environmental or viral causes in the under 50 population is necessary.”

We recognize this rising trend and are dedicated to raising greater awareness for young survivors. That’s why we founded the Never Too Young Coalition, a collaborative group dedicated to spreading the message, in 2014 and this year we funded research that will help us better understand young-onset. We also have a Young & Brave program, where you can go to see what the research says, read stories from survivors and more.

Our monthly Young & Brave blog series brings you the information you need to know about the latest in young-onset colon cancer. Don’t forget, the Colon Cancer Alliance serves as a source of information about colon health. If you have questions or are in need of support, please contact our free Helpline at (877) 422-2030. 


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