Identifying Early Signs of Colorectal Cancer in Younger Adults

Fast Facts

Early-Onset Colorectal Cancer: Refers to cases diagnosed in individuals under age 50

Key Symptoms: Abdominal pain and hematochezia (blood in the stool)

Incidence: The rate has doubled since the 1990s

Diagnosis Delay: On average, it takes 4-6 months from symptom onset to diagnosis.

New research has identified two critical “red flag” symptoms that appear in nearly half of all early-onset colorectal cancer cases: abdominal pain and hematochezia, which is blood in the stool.

Rising Incidence in Younger People

In the U.S., colorectal cancer is predominantly diagnosed in older individuals, with the average age being 66. However, early-onset colorectal cancer, diagnosed in individuals under 50, has been on the rise, doubling since the 1990s.

Study Overview

The review, published in JAMA Network Open on May 24, analyzed 81 studies encompassing data from over 24 million people younger than 50. The findings revealed that both in the U.S. and globally, common symptoms of early-onset colorectal cancer include blood in the stool, abdominal pain, and altered bowel habits.

Expert Insights

Dr. Kishore Guda, an associate professor at the Case Western Reserve University Comprehensive Cancer Center, emphasized the importance of recognizing abnormal symptoms and seeking medical evaluation promptly. This study highlights the necessity of addressing unusual symptoms early.

Common Symptoms in Younger Patients

Researchers aimed to identify symptoms commonly overlooked in younger people. Their review included data from nearly 25 million individuals and found that:

  • 45% presented with rectal bleeding or bloody stool.
  • 40% experienced abdominal pain.
  • 27% reported altered bowel habits, including constipation, diarrhea, or alternating patterns.

These symptoms were strongly associated with a higher likelihood of having colorectal cancer.

Diagnosis Delays

On average, it took four to six months from symptom onset for patients to be diagnosed with early-onset colorectal cancer. This delay could be attributed to both patients and healthcare providers underestimating the severity of the symptoms.

Challenges in Early Diagnosis

Dr. Yi-Qian Nancy You from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center noted that younger individuals might not consider cancer a possibility, leading to delays in seeking care. Physicians might also initially attribute symptoms to less severe conditions, necessitating repeated visits before initiating a cancer workup.

Recognizing Symptoms

Common colorectal cancer symptoms include:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Stomach cramps, bloating, or discomfort
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue

Although these symptoms are often related to non-cancerous conditions like diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, or inflammatory bowel disease, they should not be ignored.

Importance of Early Detection

Early detection of colorectal cancer significantly increases the chances of successful treatment. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends regular screenings starting at age 45, with earlier and more frequent screenings for those at high genetic risk.

Taking Action

If symptoms persist, consider discussing them with a healthcare provider. At-home stool tests can be a preliminary step, but professional evaluation and possible colonoscopy are crucial for accurate diagnosis.

Understanding and acting on the warning signs of colorectal cancer can lead to earlier diagnosis and better outcomes. Trust your instincts about your body and seek medical advice if you notice concerning symptoms


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