"The Never Too Young survey revealed that almost 80 per cent of early-onset bowel cancer patients were not aware of their risk prior to diagnosis. Worryingly, almost a third surveyed waited three months or more to seek medical advice, despite experiencing tell-tale symptoms such as blood in the bowel movement or abdominal pain," he said.
Close to 1,100 Australians under the age of 50 are diagnosed with bowel cancer and more than 200 die from the disease each year. Additionally, the latest AIHW Fatal Burden of Disease report found bowel cancer was one of the leading causes of premature mortality in 25-44 year olds in 2010.
Mr Wiggins said there is a common misconception that bowel cancer is just an 'old person's disease'.
"While the disease is more common in people over 50, you're never too young to have bowel cancer, so regardless of age people should not ignore the warning signs. If you have a family history of the disease you also need to talk to your GP. Interestingly, 65 per cent of patients surveyed did not have a family history, so it's up to you to trust your body and to see a GP if something doesn't feel right," Mr Wiggins said.
Worryingly, emerging research shows bowel cancer in young people is on the rise. Recent published Australian research found that rates of bowel cancer in Australians aged 20-39 years increased between 1990 and 2010 - in those aged 30-39 there had been a 35 per cent increase.
Colorectal surgeon and Bowel Cancer Australia director Associate Professor Graham Newstead AM said bowel cancer is closely linked with diet and physical activity, which could potentially explain the rising rates in young people.
"Your risk of bowel cancer increases if you lead a sedentary lifestyle, rely on processed or packaged foods or have diabetes or obesity, so it's not surprising that we are now starting to see the full impact of diet and lifestyle in the younger generation," said Professor Newstead.
"Early-onset bowel cancer tends to be more aggressive as well, leaving a devastating effect on patients and their families. We are acting now to make young people aware that this cancer can affect them given the rising rates of bowel cancer in those under 50s is a global trend," he added.
In response to this concerning trend, Bowel Cancer Australia has launched the You're Never Too Young advocacy initiative to raise community awareness of bowel cancer and provide support to young people diagnosed with the disease.
Mr Wiggins said, "The Never Too Young survey revealed that young patients are not only surprised by their diagnosis, they also felt isolated and alone because bowel cancer is so often associated with older people. In fact, more than half felt they were the only young person with bowel cancer."
Bowel Cancer Australia's Nurse and Nutrition Advisory Service and Peer-to-Peer Support Network, a buddy system linking bowel cancer patients of similar ages and stages of disease, are just two examples of the charity's programs available to young people affected by the disease.
Signs of bowel cancer may include blood in the bowel movement, unexplained weight loss, persistent change in bowel habit or severe abdominal pain. Anyone experiencing these symptoms for more than two weeks should speak to their doctor as soon as possible.
For more information about the You're Never Too Young initiative or to participate in the survey, visit nevertooyoung.org.au or call the Bowel Cancer Australia Helpline on 1800 555 494.
Bowel Cancer Awareness Month runs throughout June and is an initiative of Bowel Cancer Australia – bowelcancerawarenessmonth.org