Colorectal cancer (CSR) is the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States. Recent studies have shown that it is becoming more common among young people.

Writes about it Verywell.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer may go unnoticed in the early stages of the disease. A team of researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has identified four "red flags" that may be signs of early stages of colorectal cancer.

What are the early signs of colorectal cancer in young people?

The study, which was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that there are four symptoms that may be early warning signs of colorectal cancer:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Iron deficiency anemia

According to the study, these symptoms appeared at least two years before the diagnosis of colorectal cancer.

"Our findings are important and timely because of the rising incidence of colorectal cancer in young people," said Cassandra Fritz, MD, first author of the study and assistant professor of gastroenterology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "Awareness of these symptoms may improve early detection of early-stage colorectal cancer."

Here's what you should know about the early signs of colorectal cancer and what to do if you have them.

The more symptoms you have, the higher your risk of the disease

According to the American Cancer Society, the number of colorectal cancer cases diagnosed in people younger than 55 nearly doubled from 11% to 20% between 1995 and 2019.

Fritz and her colleagues analyzed health insurance data from more than 5000,50 patients with early-stage colorectal cancer (diagnosed before the age of <>). The researchers' goal was to find symptoms that could be early signs of colorectal cancer, especially in younger people.

The study found that within three months to two years prior to diagnosis, patients who had symptoms such as abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, prolonged diarrhea, and iron deficiency anemia had a higher risk of early onset of CSR.

According to Fritz, nearly half of patients reported having had at least one of these symptoms in the three months before diagnosis.

"We hope patients and doctors are aware of the 4 symptoms we have identified as related to early-stage CSR," Fritz said. "Some patients in our study had symptoms for about 2 years prior to diagnosis. Early diagnosis is critical!"

The researchers also found that the more symptoms a person had, the higher their risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

For example, having one symptom almost doubles the patient's risk of disease, having two symptoms increases the risk by more than 3.5 times, and having three or more increases the risk by more than 6.5 times.

If you have symptoms, check-up matters no matter how old you are

In a press release about the study, senior researcher Yin Cao, a research associate, master of public health, assistant professor of surgery, and research associate at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes Jewish Hospital and the University of Washington School of Medicine said that if you have symptoms such as rectal bleeding and iron deficiency anemia, you should talk to your doctor about checking for colorectal cancer.

Even if you think you're too young to screen, Cao advises remembering that "colorectal cancer is not a disease that affects only older people."

"We want young people to be aware of these potentially very distinct signs and symptoms and respond to them," Cao said. "Especially because people under 50 are considered a low-risk group and they don't get routine colorectal cancer screening."

Symptoms don't necessarily mean you have cancer

Anton Bilchik, MD, an oncologist surgeon and chairman of the Department of General Surgery at Providence St. John Health Center and Chief Medical Officer and Director of the Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Program at St. John's Cancer Institute, said most symptoms associated with colorectal cancer can also be signs of many common illnesses.

For example, food poisoning or viral gastroenteritis can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease can cause bleeding and anemia.

"These symptoms are not specific to colon cancer," Bilczyk said. "There is no specific symptom associated with colon cancer because there are so many other diseases that can have similar symptoms."

However, Bilczyk said all patients — regardless of age — should contact their doctor immediately if they have symptoms to find out what's causing them.

"If you have more than one of these symptoms, you need to seriously consider a diagnosis different from what is most common among young people, which could be gastroenteritis, colitis or hemorrhoids," Bilchik said.

Should I get tested if you have no symptoms?

If you have no symptoms, Bilchik still recommends taking preventive measures, such as getting tested for colorectal cancer. The sooner cancer is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can be started, which can lead to better outcomes.

"Young people should be aware that colon cancer is no longer a disease of the elderly and that it is growing exponentially among people under 50," Bilczyk said. "There is no excuse not to get tested because now we have stool-based tests that can be done at home."

Tracy Childs, MD, a general and colorectal surgery specialist and vice chair of surgery at Providence-St. Johns Health Center, said screening is especially important for some people who may be at higher risk for colorectal cancer:

  • People with genetic mutations for diseases such as Lynch syndrome
  • People with a personal or family history of inflammatory bowel disease
  • People with a history of radiotherapy for the abdomen or pelvic organs
  • People with a history of cystic fibrosis or diabetes
  • People who smoke cigarettes and/or drink alcohol
  • People who eat a lot of red and/or processed meat
  • People who are obese.

In 2021, the U.S. Prevention Services Working Group lowered the recommended age for colorectal cancer screening from 50 to 45. Adults between the ages of 45 and 75 should be screened for colorectal cancer, and adults between the ages of 76 and 85 should talk to their doctor about screening.

Can you lower your risk of colorectal cancer?

Childs said you can do some things to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer:

  • Talk to your doctor about checkups
  • Engage in regular physical activity
  • Follow a nutritious diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Check your cholesterol and keep it under control
  • Reach and maintain a weight that supports your health
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Avoid smoking.

The number of cases of colorectal cancer among young people is increasing. A new study speaks of four symptoms: abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, prolonged diarrhea, and iron deficiency anemia. They may be early warning signs that should prompt you to see your doctor.

Colorectal cancer is a complex cancer that requires a serious approach to treatment. The most common among these diseases is colon cancer, which accounts for more than half of the cases of cancer of the digestive system.

The term colorectal cancer combines:

  • colon cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • cecum cancer
  • sigmoid colon cancer
  • colon cancer

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