Close up of a medical infusion device which delivers fluids, medications, blood and blood products to patients through IV.Share on Pinterest
Experts say cancer screening is crucial to preventing an increasing number of colon cancer deaths. Mo Lindsey Rivera/Stocksy
  • New data from the American Cancer Society shows that colorectal cancer deaths have continued to increase.
  • Meanwhile, overall cancer deaths have decreased in the United States.
  • Colon cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death in men under the age of 50 and second in women under 50 in the U.S.

The American Cancer Society recently released its Cancer Statistics 2024 report detailing the latest cancer facts and trends.

While the report shows that overall cancer deaths have continued to decline in the United States, some specific cancers — mainly colorectal cancer — have been seeing an increase in cancer deaths.

New data shows that colorectal cancer — also known as colon cancer — is now the leading cause of cancer death in men under the age of 50 and second in women under 50 in the U.S.

According to Rebecca Siegel, MPH, Senior Scientific Director of Surveillance Research at the American Cancer Society and lead author of this report, the success of tobacco control and a steep drop in deaths from lung cancer is a big part of why colorectal cancer deaths have increased in both men and women under the age of 50.

“But it is also because of increasing colorectal cancer incidence in people born after the 1950s for reasons that are currently under investigation by many researchers but may include increased obesity, changes in diet and/or the gut microbiome including highly processed food consumption, a more sedentary lifestyle, overuse of antibiotics, and even gut exposure to microplastics, etc.,” Siegal told Medical News Today.

“The rise in colorectal cancer in people under 50 is the same in men and women, strongly suggesting the cause is not hormonal or endogenous, but due to external environmental or behavioral changes,” she added.

Dr. Anton Bilchik, surgical oncologist, Chief of Medicine, and director of the Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Program at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA — who was not involved in this study — said another theory for this rise in colon cancer deaths might be inflammation.

“Inflammation has been shown to result in an increase in cardiovascular disease, as well as cancer,” Dr. Bilchik told MNT. “The concern is that a lot of this starts at a very young age and that education needs to start really at preschool in terms of what kids are eating and the importance of not living a sedentary lifestyle,” he added.

Dr. Steven Lee-Kong, professor of surgery and chief of the Division of Colorectal Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey — who was also not involved in this study — said some potential factors that may be involved in the increase in colon cancer deaths might be, “poorer compliance to preventative health screening examinations, poorer health insurance coverage, lack of familiarity with family history — as this may contribute to increased risk of colorectal cancer — and lack of familiarity with the recent reduction in age at which patients are screened.”

Colorectal cancer affects the colon — a part of the large intestine — and the rectum.

It is currently the third most common cancer in the world.

Colon cancer is normally seen in older adults over the age of 50. However, it can happen at any age, and previous studies show colorectal cancer diagnoses have almost doubled among young adults.

Typical symptoms of colon cancer include:

  • bloody stool
  • frequent diarrhea or constipation
  • stomach pain, cramps, and/or bloating
  • fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss

This type of cancer normally starts from cell clumps called polyps that grow inside the colon. While they are not automatically cancerous, they can become colon cancer over time.

Polyps can be found during regular screening tests, which are recommended for adults ages 45 to 75 and then removed.

The sooner colorectal cancer is spotted, the better the treatment options and potential outcome — the five-year survival rate is 91% if the cancer is found before it spreads outside of the colon or rectum.

When asked how these increases in colon cancer deaths could be halted, Siegel said it’s challenging because the cause isn’t known.

“But there are many ways to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer in general by getting screened according to recommendations, maintaining a healthy body weight, being physically active, limiting consumption of red/processed meat and alcohol, and not smoking,” she continued.

“It’s also important to follow up with your doctor if you have persistent symptoms like blood in the stool or from the rectum, abdominal pain, change in bowel habits or shape of stool, etc.,” Siegel added.

Dr. Lee-Kong said he is increasingly alarmed by the continued, and poorly understood, increase in colorectal cancer incidence in younger adults.

“Compounded by the continued disparities seen in patients of color, colorectal cancer incidence and mortality needs to be better understood,” he added.

For colorectal cancer screenings, Siegel said certain action items should be followed.

“Increase screening before (age) 45 for people at higher risk by (age) 45 for everyone else,” she detailed. “Increase awareness of the increased risk and symptoms so people will go to the doctor and get diagnosed earlier, when treatment is more successful. And reduce the stigma so people will be more comfortable talking about the disease and their symptoms.”

Dr. Bilchik said the bottom line is that people need to recognize that cancers such as colon cancer and prostate cancer are preventable and that there are very good screening methods out there.

“We have very sensitive home stool-based tests that are more than 92% sensitive for detecting cancer cells,” he continued. “So it doesn’t have to be a colonoscopy alone. It’s much simpler in terms of being able to not have to do a bowel prep and be tested at home.

“Although colonoscopy is still the gold standard and certainly recommended in high-risk individuals, there are much easier, less expensive, and more convenient alternatives,” Dr. Bilchik added.

When it comes to protecting yourself from colon cancer, Dr. Lee-Kong advised to, “actively discuss family history with your primary care physician, don’t ignore changes in bowel habits or anal bleeding, (and) get screened starting at age 45.”

And Dr. Bilchik provided these basic tips for defending against colorectal cancer:

  • Exercise at least five days a week for 30 to 40 minutes at a time
  • Avoid processed food as much as possible
  • Limit the intake of red meat, as previous research shows that too much red meat is associated with colon cancer
  • Don’t ignore symptoms such as rectal bleeding, stomach pain, and weight loss
  • Avoid smoking
  • When you go to a grocery store, shop the outside, where fruits, vegetables, and healthier foods are located, rather than the inside, where a lot of processed foods can be found