Here’s What to Know About Rising Colorectal Cancer Rates in Kids and Teens

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If you feel like you’ve been seeing anxiety-inducing headlines about colorectal cancer every time you read the news or scroll on social media, you’re not alone. More young adults are getting diagnosed with the disease (even as rates stay steady or drop among older people) and doctors aren’t entirely sure why. Now a new study of CDC data, which will be presented at a meeting of GI experts called Digestive Disease Week later this month, suggests that colorectal cancer rates in children and teens are also on the rise—and have made more dramatic jumps compared to other age groups.

The researchers found that new colorectal cancer diagnoses increased a whopping 500% among children ages 10 to 14 and 333% among teens ages 15 to 19 between 1999 and 2020. (For comparison, new diagnoses increased by about 70% or less for those ages 30 to 44.)

If your jaw dropped after reading that, well…same. Although the study’s findings are alarming and should be taken seriously, you don’t have to panic. In fact, studies like these can bring you peace of mind—if you’re armed with the right context. Here’s what we mean.

What the study on colorectal cancer rates in kids actually found

The good news is that the number of children and teens who are diagnosed with the disease is still very low, Islam Mohamed, MD, lead researcher of the study and internal medicine resident physician with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said during a media briefing on May 8. “While the trends are alarming…we have to be cautious about the data,” says Dr. Mohamed.

Here’s what Dr. Mohamed and his colleagues found: In 1999, about one in a million children aged 10 to 14 were diagnosed with colorectal cancer compared with six in a million in 2020—which is still pretty rare. Similarly, three in a million teens ages 15 to 19 were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1999 compared with 13 in every million teens in 2020.

Just one child with cancer is too many, but those numbers still aren’t high enough to warrant regularly screening young people, Dr. Mohamed says. While it might sound like a good idea to be extra cautious, unnecessary tests carry their own risks, like anxiety, pain, hefty medical bills, and stressful false-positives that require additional follow-up. Instead, Dr. Mohamed adds that more “tailored approaches should be considered.” That might look like a scoring system to calculate a child’s chances of getting colorectal cancer, he says, which will help determine if they should be screened. (There’s something similar called the Gail Model that’s used for breast cancer.)

“I don’t want people to be overly worried, but I think this is informative, and it’s extremely important to recognize that this could be a growing issue in our very young pediatric and teenage patients,” Cathy Eng, MD, director of the Young Adult Cancers Program at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee, tells SELF. “Keep in mind, we want patients to be diagnosed earlier. If we can refer them for screening earlier on when symptoms develop, then we can ideally cure these patients,” says Dr. Eng, who was not involved in the new research.

These findings could lead to earlier diagnoses

The fact that more kids have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer is awful, full stop. But without this kind of research, as unsettling as the findings can be, doctors might overlook this disease in young people, whose symptoms are often misdiagnosed as conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and hemorrhoids, Dr. Eng says. Constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, and signs of anemia (low iron), were the most common symptoms reported among people in the study.

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