Help increase screening and prevention for colon & rectal cancer.


New Study Demonstrates 4 ‘Red Flag’ Symptoms for Early Onset Colorectal Cancer

A doctor types on a Mac computer, surrounded by various items such as a clipboard, a glass of water, a thermometer, stethoscope.

What’s happening? 

Colorectal cancer is on the rise in younger patients. This concerning trend was highlighted in a report by the American Cancer Society in March of 2023, showing that 1 in 5 diagnosed with colorectal cancer are young onset. An estimated 153,020 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2023 alone.

What was the study looking for? 

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, wanted to find symptoms that give early warning signs for colorectal cancer. Because of the alarming rise of colorectal cancer in younger adults, and the current screening age on colonoscopies, finding the most prevalent symptoms may assist with faster diagnosis for early onset patients

The current screening age for a colonoscopy is 45, meaning many patients demonstrating symptoms consistent with colorectal cancer face an additional barrier for detection.

What did the study find? 

The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, included 5,075 early onset colorectal cancer patients. Almost half of the participants had at least one of the above symptoms at least two years before their colorectal cancer diagnosis. Four symptoms were found to be consistent in almost half of the 5,075 patients in the study

Early onset is a colorectal cancer diagnosis under the age of 50. Red flag symptoms, as labeled by the study, are the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Diarrhea
  • Iron deficiency anemia

According to the researchers, a single symptom nearly doubled the risk, and three or more symptoms increased the risk more than 6.5 times.

What this means for early onset diagnosis  

Researchers in the study hope that identifying the four most prevalent symptoms will prompt stronger awareness for patients and doctors.

Yin Cao, associate professor of surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine and senior investigator for the stated:

“Colorectal cancer is not simply a disease affecting older people; we want younger adults to be aware of and act on these potentially very telling signs and symptoms — particularly because people under 50 are considered to be at low risk, and they don’t receive routine colorectal cancer screening. It’s also crucial to spread awareness among primary care doctors, gastroenterologists and emergency medicine doctors. To date, many early-onset colorectal cancers are detected in emergency rooms, and there often are significant diagnostic delays with this cancer.”

By identifying key symptoms to be aware of, Cao and her team of researchers are enabling those under 50 to consider colorectal cancer, learn their family history, and advocate for their symptoms at the doctors office. To read the full study, click here.

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