Doctors report a growing number of patients are being diagnosed with colon cancer at younger ages than normal, but no one knows why. Researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center made the unsettling connection in the young colon cancer trends in recent years and published their findings in the Journal of American Medical Association Surgery.

Colon cancer generally plagues men and women at the same rate regardless of their race, but the diagnosis usually comes when they’re 50 years or older, according to the Colon Cancer Alliance. When discovered early, colon cancer responds well to surgery and chemotherapy treatments. However, the mysteriously increasing rate of colon cancer among young people will lead to unprecedented findings in treatment response. If they’re not recommended for screening, doctors won’t be able to catch the cancer cells early enough. As of now, there will be 96,830 new cases diagnosed in 2014, according to the National Cancer Institute. But without recommended screenings put in place for younger groups, how will doctors be able to catch cancer cells early enough?

"In the setting of these congratulatory reports of a successful public health screening program, this report from Bailey et al is rather unsettling," Kiran K. Turaga, of the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, said in a press release. "Nevertheless, assuming that this increasing incidence of colorectal cancer in young adults is a real phenomenon, it begs the question of why this is occurring and what one should do about it.”

Colon cancer is the third most common form of cancer, which is why the American Cancer Society recommends anyone 50 years and older should be screened and then every five years afterward. Those recommendations may change now that there are more and more 20- to 49-year-olds at risk and developing colon cancer. From 1998 to 2006, there was a three percent decline in men and 2.4 percent decline in women thanks to screening recommendations put in place. But doctors aren’t instructing their younger patients to get screened, which puts them at greater risk than any other population.  

"Hence, widespread application of colonoscopic screening might add significant cost and risk without societal benefit, Turaga said. “However, this report should stimulate opportunities for development of better risk-prediction tools that might help us identify these individuals early and initiate better screening/prevention strategies. The use of stool DNA, genomic profiling, and mathematical modeling might all be tools in the armamentarium of the oncologist in the near future," the author said.

Researchers predict by 2020, the rate of color cancer for 20- to 34-year-olds will increase by 37.8 and it won’t stop there. By 2030, the rate will increase to 90 percent, unless something is done about screening recommendations. They still don’t know why the rates are rising, but new protocols need to be put in place before the numbers worsen.

Source: Bailey CE and Turaga KK. JAMA Surgery. 2014.