More Younger People Are Getting Colorectal Cancers, and Doctors Don’t Know Why

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A larger share of people are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at a younger age and at a more dangerous stage of the disease, a report showed. Doctors aren’t sure why.

The American Cancer Society said Wednesday that about 20% of new colorectal cancer diagnoses were in patients under 55 in 2019, compared with 11% in 1995. Some 60% of new colorectal cancers in 2019 were diagnosed at advanced stages, the research and advocacy group said, compared with 52% in the mid-2000s and 57% in 1995, before screening was widespread.

Cases and death rates for colorectal cancer have continued a decadeslong decline overall thanks to screening, better treatments and reductions in risk factors such as smoking, the ACS report’s authors said. But the shift of the burden toward younger people and diagnoses at more advanced stages has oncologists on alert.

“The improvements have slowed, and they’ve slowed because of this opposite trend we’re seeing in young people,” said Kimmie Ng, director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “More and more are getting diagnosed with cancer that might not be curable.”

Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancer types in the U.S. and the second-deadliest behind lung cancer. Some 153,000 diagnoses are expected in 2023, ACS estimated, including some 19,500 cases in people under 50. The cancer is most common among people 65 to 74, but the case rate among people under 50 has risen quickly. Actor Chadwick Boseman’s death in 2020 from colon cancer at age 43 drew more attention to the trend.