What millennials and Generation Z need to know about colon cancer

Individuals in their 20s and 30s should be aware of the warning signs of colon cancer to know when to seek medical attention.

Stream MGZ colon cancerIndividuals in their 20s and 30s should be aware of the warning signs of colon cancer to know when to seek medical attention. When most people think about colon cancer, they associate the disease with older populations. However, the American Cancer Society reports that one in every five colon cancer diagnoses in 2019 was in someone younger than 55 years old. This is an increase of 9 percent since 1995.

With an estimated 53,000 deaths from colon cancer in 2024, one University of Alabama at Birmingham physician explains what people in their 20s and 30s need to know about risk factors and warning signs of the disease. 

Risk factors

Drew Gunnells, M.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Surgery, emphasizes that the biggest concern of colorectal cancer is a strong family history. He recommends seeking out family members and discussing their medical history as this may change the window of screening time.  

“Genetics plays a significant role in colorectal cancer, and if you have an immediate family member with colorectal cancer, then you will need to relay this information to your medical providers to start screening earlier,” Gunnells said.  

While one may not be able to change their genetics, Gunnells, who is also a member of the gastrointestinal cancer team at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, says small modifications can be made to a daily routine to help lower one’s risk of getting colon cancer.  

“Drinking, smoking, eating highly processed foods and meat, and high sugar diets are going to increase your risk factors,” Gunnells said. “That’s not to say that you should not eat anything with sugar or that is highly processed, but be mindful of the amount you are consuming.”

Another way an individual can lower their risk is to incorporate physical activity into their day-to-day routine. This can include:

  • taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • parking toward the back of a parking lot
  • stretching while watching television

Recently, one UAB researcher found that music can have a positive or negative impact on athletic performance during exercise. Learn more about how to select the right workout playlist, here

Warning signs

Red flags for individuals in their 20s and 30s are bowel habits, abdominal pain or bloating, weight loss, fatigue, or change in appetite. But, no matter one’s age, Gunnells stresses that blood in the stool and rectal bleeding are never normal.

“Many times, it is not cancer and is likely something minor, like hemorrhoids; but it is something that needs to be evaluated,” Gunnells said.

A primary care provider is central to obtaining necessary screenings and discussing additional risks for colorectal cancer. To find a UAB Medicine provider, click here.

Learn about the services and treatments for colorectal cancer that the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB offers here.