Bowel cancer on the rise among younger Australians

Bowel cancer screening often begins after the age of fifty. New statistics reveal that it should start earlier because bowel cancer is on the rise among younger population in Australia. The numbers appear in the latest issue of the journal of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

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According to the new study there is a rise of around 9 percent in the cases of bowel cancer (that includes colon and rectal cancers) among people aged below 50 since the 1990s. This rise shows that there is an increased incidence of this disease among the younger population.

The researchers explain that a similar trend has also been in the United States among patients less than 54 years of age. The earlier American study had found that rectal cancer has risen by 3.2 percent a year between 1974 and 2013 among patients aged between 20 and 29 years.

The team of researchers looked at all cases of bowel cancer over the last four decades among Australians aged over 20 years.

In Australia bowel cancer is the third most commonly found cancer in 2018. In fact, statistics reveal that Australians have a one in 13 chance of being diagnosed with bowel cancer before they turn 85 years of age.

They noted that rise in rates of obesity could run parallel to rising incidence of bowel cancer among the younger. Intake of processed foods and alcohol are also linked to rise in bowel cancer risk, the team writes.

They call for higher quality studies to look at the reasons behind the rising incidence of this cancer among those younger than 50.

Their study also noted that bowel cancer was on the decline among the older Australians. According to the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, all people aged between 50 and 74 years are being screened for this cancer. Screening involves detection and removal of suspicious lesions in the bowel that could turn into cancers.

This screening program could be an important reason why bowel cancer numbers are on the decline among older adults. Further early detection due to screening also increases the chances of survival. For example those detected early have a 90 percent cure rate compared to those detected late.

Those detected with bowel cancer between 2010 and 2014 had a 70 percent chance of surviving five years after diagnosis, the team noted. The screening program is slated to cover at least 60 percent of the population which would mean saving around 84,000 lives by 2040. They call bowel cancer screening program’s success as one of the “greatest public health successes ever achieved in Australia.” In 2014 and 2015, only 41 percent of the eligible adult population underwent their screening test for bowel cancer. The test is free and is self administered.

There have been suggestions to lower the screening age for bowel cancer to 45. The problems associated with this include increasing the waiting time for colonoscopies for people with a high risk of the cancer due to overstretched resources. Another problem is the risk of perforations and tearing and other complications associated with colonoscopy among a larger screened population.

Senior author and Cancer Council Australia director of Cancer Research Karen Canfell said that this study shows lowering screening age could be possible way out. She added, “However, our research shows that this is still the best approach to bowel cancer screening for average risk Australians.” She said, “It's vital that we focus on increasing participation in the program. We encourage all Australian aged 50-74 years to take part in the NBCSP when they are sent the test kit.”

The team urges people to take up healthy habits to avoid bowel cancer. This includes physical activity, avoidance of smoking, limiting alcohol intake, eating a healthy and balanced diet and getting tested and checked in case of any bleeding from the rectum. Those who are at an intermediate-to-high risk due to a family history of the cancer or have symptoms such as bleeding from rectum must take the test, experts add.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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