What you need to know about colorectal cancers

In 2020, colorectal cancers accounted for 8%, or 147,950, of new cancer cases, making them the fourth most common type of new cancers diagnosed in the U.S. (excluding skin cancers). 1Colon and rectal cancers, often referred together as “colorectal cancer,” share some important similarities — both affect parts of the large intestine, both frequently present as adenocarcinomas (a type of cancer that begins in cells that produce fluids such as mucus), and both start as growths called polyps.2 Colorectal cancers are the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. after lung cancer.1

Colorectal cancer cases are on the rise in young people.

The majority of colorectal cancers are diagnosed in people older than age 50, the age many experts recommend people with average risk begin screening.3

However, in 2017, American Cancer Society (ACS) researchers reported a disturbing increase in the number of cases diagnosed in younger people — namely, that people born in 1990 have double the risk of developing colon cancer and quadruple the risk of developing rectal cancer than people born in 1950. As a result, ACS lowered their recommended age for screening to 45 for people with average risk.4

While the rate of new cases for these diseases has been dropping overall — about 2.7% annually over the past decade, according to the National Cancer Institute — the ACS study revealed that this decline is largely fueled by older people. When they broke down the data, they found that incidence rates (rates of new cases) have actually been increasing to the tune of 1% to 2% each year for colon cancer in people ages 20 to 39 and 3% per year for rectal cancer in adults ages 20 to 29.4

As of 2020, 12% (or 18,000 cases) of colorectal cancer were estimated to be diagnosed in people younger than age 50.5

It’s not entirely clear why this increase is occurring, but it’s likely linked in part to obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise. To lower your risk, experts recommend4:

  • Regularly exercising
  • Eating a balanced diet (more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and less red meat and processed meats)
  • Avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol consumption

In many cases, symptoms aren’t apparent in the earliest stages of the disease.
People younger than age 55 are 58% more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer, in part because “cancer is typically not on the radar of young adults and their providers,” the authors of the ACS study said at the time.4

Early detection is critical and may prevent the disease entirely if precancerous polyps are found and removed. People should be vigilant about symptoms and discuss any concerns with their physician. Signs include:4

  • A prolonged change in bowel habits
  • Cramping or abdominal pain
  • Rectal bleeding, blood in the stool or dark stools
  • A feeling that you have to go that is not alleviated by a bowel movement
  • Weakness, fatigue or unintended weight loss

Experts recommend talking to your doctor if you have a family history of colorectal cancers. Due to a higher incidence of developing colorectal cancers, many experts also recommend African Americans begin screening early at age 45.6

Read more about colorectal cancer research at Van Andel Institute at the links below:




1 National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. Cancer Stat Facts: Common Cancer Sites. Accessed February 9, 2021. seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/common.html

2 National Cancer Institute. Colorectal Cancer — Patient Version. Accessed February 9, 2021.  www.cancer.gov/types/colorectal

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorectal Cancer Screening Tests. Updated: February 10, 2020. Retrieved February 9, 2021. www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/basic_info/screening/tests.htm

4 Study finds sharp rise in colon cancer and rectal cancer rates among young adults. American Cancer Society. February 28, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2021. www.cancer.org/latest-news/study-finds-sharp-rise-in-colon-cancer-and-rectal-cancer-rates-among-young-adults.html

5 American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer rates rise in younger adults. March, 5, 2020. Accessed February 9, 2021. www.cancer.org/latest-news/colorectal-cancer-rates-rise-in-younger-adults.html

6 American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer rates higher in African Americans, rising in younger people. September 3, 2020. Accessed February 9, 2021.