While the medical establishment has been patting itself on the back because colon cancer rates in the US have declined in the past 20 years, an insidious trend has been brewing. A new study shows that young people under the age of 50 have experienced rising rates of colon cancer in every age category; it’s only the older folks who are getting it less.
One rather creepy outcome of the study, published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, is that the biggest spike appears among the youngest adults. Those men aged 20 to 29 had a five percent annual jump in colon cancer rates between 1992 and 2005, with women in that age group nearly at six percent! Overall, the rate jumped 1.5 percent annually in men ages 20 to 49 and 1.6 percent a year for women in the under-50 age category, contrasted with a 2.8 percent annual decline in men over 50.
The study’s lead author, Rebecca L. Siegal of the American Cancer Society, said, “In recent years, we’ve been thinking we’ve been doing pretty well because colorectal cancer incidence has been declining overall. But we found that when you look at young adults, the rates are increasing fairly rapidly — in great contrast to what’s going on in the older population.”
While the researchers don’t see any clear reason for the rise in rates among the young, they point to the fact that routine screening for colon cancer starts at 50, and also, to rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Dr. Siegel says they need more research to figure out what’s going on. Then again, if they start screening for colon cancer at a younger age, that can only make the incidence in those age groups go up, not down. It’s not like screening can “unfind” cancer. So in truth, what we’re looking at now in terms of numbers is a “best case scenario.”
In spite of the reluctance on the part of study authors to name a culprit in the youthful rise in this disease, the researchers do note that most of the tumors in this age group appear on the left side of the colon and rectum, where tumors associated with red-meat consumption typically grow.
Dr. Siegel concedes, “Clearly, I think the increased rates among younger adults, while low, are substantial and need some attention. For now we can say that there is obviously an obesity epidemic going on in the U.S., and so that probably has something to do with it. Also, there has been a change in dietary patterns over the past couple of decades, reflected in an increase in fast-food consumption and red meat consumption among young people.”
Dr. Warren Enckler of Beth Israel Hospital in New York, agreed. “A dietary cause makes sense,” he said. “If you take kids who are in an environment where the general caloric intake is higher, a sedentary lifestyle is more prevalent than it was 30 years ago and the type of food they’re eating — as regards red meat — is higher, and then you put all of those things together, then there is no surprise that you have a rising incidence of colon cancer among younger people relative to others.”
It’s undoubtedly no coincidence that colon cancer rates also have been rising worldwide. A study just out by the American Cancer Society found that of the 51 countries on five continents looked at, 27 showed rising rates for both men and women in the past 20 years. The greatest increases were in Asia and Eastern Europe, places where the traditional diet has given way to American favorites. In fact, in Miyagi, Japan, colon cancer rates rose by 92 percent for men and 47 percent for women. In Slovenia, men showed a 70- percent increase and women 28 percent. In fact, only in America did rates decline. Or did they?
Earlier this month, the American Cancer Society published statistics claiming that many lives had been saved in the last decade thanks to better medical care — primarily in lung cancer and colon cancer. In my newsletter on the subject, Cancer — 650,000 Lives Miscalculated, I questioned the validity of the report’s statistics. But this latest study goes beyond even my challenge. Quite simply, it calls into the question the report’s fundamental premise — that we were seeing the beginning of the end in the war on cancer. In truth, if this new study is true, the American Cancer Society may be citing a mere temporary blip in an inexorable climb in cancer deaths in the United States and throughout the world. A frightening prospect!