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Northeast Ohio doctors warn of colorectal cancer risk in young adults

More men and women under the age of 50 are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Doctors aren't sure why.
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More men and women under the age of 50 are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Doctors aren't sure why.

Northeast Ohio doctors are concerned about a significant rise in colorectal cancer in younger adults.

For adults younger than 50, colorectal cancer is now the leading cause of cancer death in men and the second leading cause of cancer death in women, according to the American Cancer Society. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force lowered the recommended age to begin screenings from 50 to 45 because of the rise of this cancer in younger adults.

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Dr. David Liska, director of Cleveland Clinic's Center for Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer, said there are several risk factors, including obesity, smoking, a diet with a lot of red meat, a diet low in fiber and excessive intake of alcohol.

“Unfortunately, we see many young people with colorectal cancer who are fit, active, never smoked, and don't have a family history of colorectal cancer. Those patients are still a bit of a puzzle,” he said.

Clinic researchers are looking into potential causes, including examining bacteria linked to colorectal cancer in young people and why some areas of the country, including Northeast Ohio, have clusters of colorectal cancer deaths.

Forty-seven-year-old Chagrin Falls resident Carmen Susman was diagnosed with stage-four colorectal cancer two years ago after he noticed blood in his urine. Before that, he had no symptoms.

“My wife and I, we were walking every day, we were exercising, we were living a great life," he said.

Susman said recovery has been difficult. His doctors decided on an aggressive form of treatment with five consecutive days of radiation, followed by several rounds of chemotherapy. The hardest part, he said, is not being as present for his two young children.

Liska said there are specific challenges to colorectal cancer diagnoses in young adults.

"Being primarily a caregiver at home, taking care of young kids and maybe even of older parents sometimes at the same time, and then all of a sudden becoming the person who needs care to be given to them," Liska said. "That can be psychologically a huge transition and can make it harder to complete treatments."

He said almost half of the people treated at the Clinic's Center last year had stage four colorectal cancer or had a recurrence of colorectal cancer, which can be more difficult to treat.

In addition to usual healthy lifestyle recommendations, Liska said people should get regular checkups and watch out for symptoms like blood in the stool, changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss.

He also said people should seek genetic testing and even earlier screening if there is a history of colorectal cancer in the family.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.