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What millennials need to know about colon cancer: Q&A with Dr. Jon LaPook

Doctor explains new study on colonoscopies
Dr. Jon LaPook explains new study on colonoscopies and colon cancer deaths 04:26

Colon cancer rates continue to rise in younger age groups, prompting questions about signs to look for and how to reduce risk.

A report from the American Cancer Society in 2023 shows colorectal cancer increasingly being seen in younger individuals, and cases are being detected at more advanced stages, when it's more difficult to treat. The study found 60% of new cases in 2019 were advanced-stage disease. 

"Shockingly, 1 in 5 people who will be diagnosed presently are younger than 55 years of age, which is quite young for colorectal cancer," says American Cancer Society CEO Dr. Karen Knudsen. The study showed the increase in ages ranging from 20 to 49, which includes the millennial generation. 

Overall, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization anticipates 106,590 new cases of colon cancer in 2024. 

There are several ways to screen for early signs of the potentially deadly disease. Researchers are also working on a blood test intended to detect colorectal cancer, which performed well in a clinical study published earlier this month, correctly detecting the cancer in 83% of people.

"The gold standard for colon cancer screening is colonoscopy because it can detect colon cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages and it can find and remove precancerous polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer," said CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. But he notes the potential of having a blood test option is attractive because "it's relatively easy to do and there's no 'ick factor' that can keep people from doing home stool testing."

We spoke with LaPook, who is also a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health, to get answers to some common colon cancer-related questions.

Q: What's driving the rise in cases?

LaPook: "We don't really know. There are a lot of suspects, but the actual villain isn't clear. Is it the fact that we are more obese? Because obesity is a risk factor. More sedentary? Something in the environment? Something we're eating or drinking? Or fascinating to me is the microbiome, the trillions of bacteria, thousands of species, in our colon. Our microbiome is changing and that may be contributing to the increase."

Q: Are there steps people can take to reduce their risk?

LaPook: "You can get screened. That is why they have dropped the age that you first get screened, if you're at average risk, from 50 down to 45."

If you're at increased risk, which includes having a family history or inflammatory bowel disease, talk to your doctor about being screened earlier. 

LaPook also says to be aware of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's list of risk factors, which includes:

  • lack of regular physical activity
  • a diet low in fruit and vegetables
  • a low-fiber and high-fat diet, or a diet high in processed meats
  • overweight and obesity
  • alcohol consumption
  • and tobacco use.

For more about when to consider screening, check CBS News' guide to preventative health screenings for each decade, from your 20s to your 60s.

Q: What are the red flags that someone should get an exam?

LaPook: "If you are younger than the recommended age for a screening, look out for symptoms including:

  • change in stool
  • rectal bleeding
  • weight loss for unexplained reason
  • abdominal cramping
  • and iron deficiency or anemia. 

"If you're told of a low iron and there's no obvious explanation, then that's something that your health care provider should help evaluate. And you know, one of the things you can do is do a test to see if you have invisible blood in the stool." 

That means if you have low iron levels levels, don't just assume it's just from menstruating, and "if you have rectal bleeding, don't just write it off to hemorrhoids," he adds. 

Q: Colonoscopies can be daunting. What words of encouragement do you have for readers who are hesitant or nervous to get this screening?

LaPook: "Whether you have symptoms or not, it can be intimidating to do a colonoscopy and just the thought of an instrument going into your colon can be daunting, but the hardest part is truly the prep, and even that can be made tolerable. ... The risks are extremely low here, and this is an extraordinarily effective procedure that has already very significantly decreased the risk of colon cancer over the last five decades and could save your life."

If people are still uncomfortable with that screening option, there are also at-home tests available.

Q: Any other takeaways? 

LaPook: "The main thing is to just be aware of symptoms and understand that this is a no-embarrassment zone. It's very hard for people to talk about rectal bleeding and anything to do with their stool, but we have to use our words. ... It's very important to have a relationship with a health care provider where you can be absolutely honest ... and you tell that person everything that's on your mind, including if you have what could be construed as embarrassing symptoms."

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