Increase in colorectal cases among younger adults spurs need for screenings

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. While the number of colon cancer cases has dropped in the U.S., the rate of diagnosis in young adults is on the rise.

The latest statistics by the American Cancer Society come as no surprise to a local mom who lost her husband to the disease.

"Rob had a great sense of humor, a really funny guy," said Christi Andringa in an interview from her suburban Minneapolis home.

It's now been three years since she lost her husband Rob.

"Rob was kind, he was a great dad," said Andringa. 

A father of three and celebrated Wisconsin Badgers Hockey player, Rob was a picture of good health. But in 2017, there was a turning point.

"He thought he had an ulcer, and he was tired," said Andringa.

After a trip to the doctor, their journey with cancer began. "He had stage four colon cancer with metastases to the liver plus lymph nodes, which made him incurable and inoperable right away." Andringa said,

Rob was just 49-years-old. At that time, recommended screening for colorectal cancer began at the age of 50.

"We really didn’t have any symptoms and there was no reason for him to think to get screened earlier than 50 because there’s no family history and he was a healthy male," said Andringa.

In the U.S. Rob's story is a familiar one. The American Cancer Society is seeing a rise in colorectal cancer in young adults. According to a new study, 1 in 5 new cases are among those in their early 50s. Cases in adults younger than 55 increased from 11% in 1995 to 20% in 2019.

"45 is the new 50 for getting colonoscopies and just for getting colorectal screenings in general," said Dr. Emil Lou.

Dr. Lou is an oncologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He says that colorectal cancer often begins as a growth called a polyp inside the colon or rectum. What's driving the increase in young adults is unclear.

"Some of the well-known risk factors are smoking cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, alcohol intake, being overweight or obese can play a role. Or diet. If it’s heavy in processed foods, that’s also a risk factor," said Dr. Lou.

"Getting a colonoscopy at 45 can save your life. It can save your life, it’s that simple. Get screened," said Andringa.

An advocate raising awareness she is now on a new journey. "So my mission is to make sure that I do everything that I can so that lives can be saved for families," said Andringa.

Dr. Lou says that colonoscopies should be considered "preventative medicine." The age for recommended screening was lowered to the age of 45 back in 2021. The Minnesota Colorectal Cancer Research Foundation and the Minnesota chapter of the American Cancer Society have a ton of resources on colorectal cancer.