Bowel cancer on the rise in Gen X and Millennials

Bowel Cancer Australia

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People born in the 1990s have twice the risk of being diagnosed with bowel cancer and four times the risk of getting rectal cancer than those born in the 1950s had at the same age, according to a new study released this week.
The US study of almost 500,000 cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed between 1974 and 2013 by the American Cancer Society revealed that bowel and rectal cancers have been declining in older Americans born between 1890 and 1950.
However, there has been a sharp increase in both cancers among younger Americans.
Although bowel cancer rates in the US have been on the decline since 1974 due to medical advances and an increase in screening, rates have been increasing each year by 2.4% for adults in their 20s and by 1% for those in their 30s.
For rectal cancer, the annual increase among 20-somethings has been 3.2% annually from 1974 to 2013. The same increase of 3.2% annually was seen among those in their 30s. In adults, age 40 to 49 and 50 to 54, rates of rectal cancer has increased by 2.3% per year.
The numbers show that every generation after 1950 has a slightly higher risk, with the largest increases appearing in people in their 20s.
The study found that the increasing risk among young people may in part be due to the fact that they are not usually screened for the disease until they are much older.
Australians become eligible to participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program from the age of 50 but will not be fully implemented until 2020.
Medical guidelines recommend screening every one to two years from age 50.
The study suggests changes in lifestyle such as unhealthy dietary habits and sedentary behaviour patterns may be driving the increase – obesity, heavy-meat diets, smoking, alcohol consumption and physical inactivity are all independent risk factors for bowel cancer.
Australian research conducted in 2015 showed that rates of young-onset bowel cancer have also been increasing in Australia.
Over the past two decades, there has been a rise of 85 – 100% in people in their 20s, however the researchers noted cases are actually relatively low compared to those over the age of 55.
According to the latest data available from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, of the 14,962 cases of bowel cancer diagnosed in 2013, around 14% of them (2,153) were in people under age 55.
Around 9% of the 4,071 people who died from bowel cancer that year were under age 55.
The US research did not uncover a reason for the change and concluded more studies must be done to identify causes for the rising rates.
They also highlighted the importance of adopting healthier living habits at a population level.
In the meantime, meaningful action can be taken to reduce young-onset bowel cancer through increased awareness about the importance of screening as medically recommended and timely follow-up of bowel cancer symptoms, regardless of a person’s age.
"This research further supports our commitment to raising awareness in the community and among health professionals about this rise so that there are fewer delays in diagnosis – something our own research has shown remains prevalent in young people,” said Bowel Cancer Australia CEO Julien Wiggins.
“It is also clear our Meat Free Week and Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late campaigns continue to serve a very important purpose as ways to encourage healthier eating and more active lifestyles to try to reverse this trend," Mr Wiggins said.
Bowel Cancer Australia provides a range of free resources designed to support healthy living, including recipes, booklets and a 12-week online Nutrition & Lifestyle Challenge.
Anyone can purchase a Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) such as BowelScreen® Australia at their pharmacy, online or by calling 1800 555 494, if they wish to screen in accordance with medical guidelines and do not have access to the tax-payer funded test.
If you experience any of the following symptoms suggestive of bowel cancer for more than two weeks, see your GP immediately.
  • Blood in the bowel movement
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent change in bowel habit
  • Severe abdominal pain
A positive screen test or symptoms suggestive of bowel cancer warrant further investigation and should be followed up with a colonoscopy within 30 days.
If you have any questions related to bowel cancer speak with your GP or call our Helpline at 1800 555 494 to speak to a Bowel Care Nurse
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