A new study says one in seven US colon cancer patients is younger than 50—raising questions about why more young people seem to be getting the disease and what can be done about it, reports HealthDay via the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Colon cancer has traditionally been thought of as a disease of the elderly," says lead author Samantha Hendren. "This study is really a wake-up call to the medical community that a relatively large number of colon cancers are occurring in people under 50." Using government data on almost 260,000 colon-cancer patients from 1998 to 2011, the study also says younger patients more often have advanced cancer and undergo surgery (72% compared to 63% of patients over 50). The young are also more likely to use radiation therapy (53% to 48%) and have a slight advantage in surviving for five years (68% to 67%).
Younger people are more likely to have advanced colon cancer partly because they get tested after noticing symptoms (like colon blockage, bleeding, and anemia), while people over 50 are advised to begin screenings, says Hendren. "Unfortunately, these symptoms are often ignored by the patient or doctor or ascribed to something like hemorrhoids," a scientist adds, per Reuters. Hendren's team conducted the study after noticing a rise in colon cancer among young people, Medical Daily reports, but that spike remains unexplained. Physical inactivity, obesity, smoking, and "an effect in our environment" are all possible causes, a Harvard professor says. More screenings for young people might help, but the yield would be low because under-50s are still less likely to get colon cancer. "This would be a big and costly change," says Hendren, who recommends "a lot of research" be done first. (A new killer is expected to top cancer by 2050.)