July 25, 2023

Addressing increased colorectal cancer risk in young adults

Dr. Dana Hayden is a strong advocate of preventive medicine and equitable health access.

Hayden, chair in the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery at UW Department of Surgery, notes there has been a concerning increase in younger adults being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. She intends to research what is causing that trend so that health care providers can address areas of need and increase prevention efforts.

“We know that it’s likely a combination of multiple factors, including a slow uptake in screening for younger patients or ignoring symptoms that might be related to cancer that, because a patient is young, they might not perceive as a problem. Or medical providers might disregard them as a problem because of their age,” Hayden said.

Hayden came to UW last fall from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to expand her focus on research, specifically cancer prevention among higher-risk communities facing health inequities. In particular, African Americans and those with less access to health care have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than other groups, and they are more likely to die from their illness.

At UW, Hayden plans to partner on her research with the UW Carbone Cancer Health Disparities Initiative, which focuses on outreach, education and prevention programs for marginalized communities.

“We need to get messages about colorectal cancer awareness out there, such as what symptoms should you be paying attention to and how to be an advocate for yourself or a family member when your provider is not addressing worrisome symptoms. That’s a real problem,” Hayden said.

While she was pleased to see the recommended colorectal cancer screening age lowered from 50 to 45, Hayden said some people should start screening even earlier, based on family history, lifestyle and demographic factors.

“We’re still seeing younger and younger patients that are not going to be captured by that new screening age,” she said. “That’s where the symptom recognition is so important. Younger patients are presenting with later-stage disease because they’re already having the symptoms. Hopefully the screening age continues to decrease, at least in specific populations.”

Anyone who is experiencing gastrointestinal issues like bleeding during bowel movements, new constipation or diarrhea, and persistent abdominal pain should talk to their health provider about possible causes. Hayden said while these maladies aren’t exclusively related to cancer and probably related to benign causes, it’s best to be proactive. Colorectal cancer has a high cure rate when caught in early stages.

“Especially in young people, it’s most likely not cancer, but we have to go in with a mindset that we should investigate and know we can rule that out,” she said.