Millennials, we need to talk about our colons


by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jun 29, 2017

Born in 1981, I consider myself part of both Generation X as well as the millennial demographic. As one of the youngest Gen X-ers and oldest millennials, I try and keep a pulse on the labels and trends associated with both groups — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Recently, I was taken aback by a study released by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute citing a one to two percent increase in colon cancer among people in their 20s and 30s. The study was led by researchers at the American Cancer Society (ACS) who found that rectal cancers have been on the incline among this group as well, at an even faster rate and over a longer period of time. From 1974 to 2013, adults 20 to 29 experienced a 3 percent increase in rectal cancer. From 1980 to 2013, adults 30 to 39 experienced this same uptick.

At 35 years old, I felt like I owed it to myself, as well as my fellow 30-somethings, to get to the bottom of this (pun intended) somewhat alarming progression in colorectal cancer rates.

“Yes, but what is considered a healthy lifestyle?” replied Walter Peters, MD, director of colon rectal surgery at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, after I indignantly blurted out, “But I am healthy.”

Dr. Peters and I sat down to discuss the implications of this new research, including what actions he takes as a physician to help patients avoid a colorectal cancer diagnosis, or at least catch it early. I also wanted to find out what I could do as a patient to stay alert. He explained that while we can eat what we think is a balanced diet and keep a close watch on our overall health by noticing changes, clinicians have yet to pinpoint the cause of this generational rise in colorectal cancer.

“In the last decade, we have seen a surge in cases of people in their 30s and 40s with both rectal and colon cancer, but nobody knows why,” he said. “Rectal cancers are actually more difficult to manage because they affect the last six inches of the intestinal track, and the treatment is more invasive. At one point last year, I had three patients in their 30s undergoing treatment for these types of cancers.”

This made me sad — to think that people who are arguably reaching the point in their life when it really starts to get good are in the hospital fighting just to stay alive.

The big problem with colorectal cancer is that many people are diagnosed too late, even if they’re following national screening guidelines.

A joint guideline developed by the ACS, the U.S. Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer and the American College of Radiology recommends that screening for colorectal cancer and polyps begin at age 50 for both men and women, as long as they don’t present with symptoms prior to this age.

Due to the screening guidelines, it isn’t usually brought up in conversation with their clinical caregivers either, at least not until recently.

The problem, however, is that unlike baby boomers, most millennials are not thinking about colonoscopies at this point in their lives. Due to the screening guidelines, it isn’t usually brought up in conversation with their clinical caregivers either, at least not until recently. In order for insurance companies to cover colonoscopy costs for someone under 50, the individual would need to consult with their physician after noticing changes in their body.

It really comes down to talking with your physician, said Kathy Irish, RN, a registered nurse who works closely with Dr. Peters in colorectal surgery at Baylor University Medical Center.

“Younger patients would need to consult with their physician if they suspect something unusual is going on,” Kathy said.  “If there is a family history or blood in stool or something else that is abnormal, then we would typically work with the insurance company to try to get them to cover costs of a colonoscopy so the patient doesn’t have to pay so much out of pocket.”

While a colonoscopy is the standard method of screening, there are several different types of detection. For folks under 50, the best route is to start by speaking with a physician to make sense of the different tests.

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My conversation with Dr. Peters was sobering, but not without hope. I did some additional research, and according to the ACS, if caught in the beginning stages, there is a 90 percent, five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer.

So, this is what I want to say to you fellow millenials: Pay attention, people!

Here’s what to look for:

  • Changes in Bowel Habits
  • Blood in Stool
  • Rectal or Abdominal Pain
  • Family History

I also checked with Julie Smith, RD, an outpatient nutrition counselor for Baylor Scott & White Health, to get her input on some food choices that could positively impact gastrointestinal health.

“Research shows that 45 percent of colorectal cancers are preventable each year through diet, exercise and weight management,” Julie said. “That comes out to 64,000 cases each year. We have some control over this, and it’s never too late to make changes.”

As for specifics, Julie said to stay away from processed foods as much as possible and consume fruits and vegetables often. Red meat is okay in moderation, but a regular plant-based diet is really the way to go.

I know it’s not a glamorous topic, but we need to talk about our colons.

Let’s talk about it like we talk about working out, the causes we’re passion about and the restaurants we like… but perhaps save it for post-dinner conversation.

Encourage your friends to bring it up with their primary care physicians during their regular wellness exams. Until the screening guidelines change, we’ll need to take responsibility and prioritize this area of our bodies just like we do with everything else — it could save your life.

If you’re concerned about the health of your colon, talk to your doctor or call 1-800-4BAYLOR.

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