When Kim Newcomer began experiencing severe constipation, she initially thought it was related to travel.

“Thinking about my week-long vacation with my husband, I figured that travel and unusual food were to blame,” says Newcomer. It would have been easy to dismiss her symptoms or chalk it up to the disruption to her routine — but Newcomer opted to speak with her physician.

“I visited my primary care doctor, who ordered an X-ray to check for an intestinal blockage. Finding none, he prescribed laxatives, but the constipation continued,” she said. “As the months passed, I developed rectal bleeding and pencil-thin stools. I then developed a cough I couldn’t shake.”

doctor diagnosing colorectal cancer

An X-ray revealed five nodules in her lungs, which were suspected metastases. Eventually, a tumor was discovered in Newcomer’s rectum.

“More than 11 months after my first visit to the doctor, I was diagnosed with stage IV rectal cancer,” she says. Newcomer was 35.

Not surprisingly, Newcomer was shocked. A cancer diagnosis is always a major blow, but for a 35-year-old — someone who doesn’t fit what we typically consider to be the profile of a colorectal cancer patient — it’s particularly shocking.

But Newcomer is not alone.

Colorectal cancer in young adults is on the rise

“Over the last three decades, we have seen a sustained increase in young adults diagnosed with colorectal cancer,” says Christopher Lieu, MD, of the University of Colorado Cancer Center and a member of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance Medical Scientific Advisory Committee. 

Why is this happening?

That’s still not completely clear.

“There are a lot of hypotheses but not a lot of answers at this time,” says Dr. Lieu. “A lot of focus is on diet, environmental exposures, and the gut microbiome (the collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms that live in your large intestine). This is a big area of research.”

The rise in colorectal cancers in young people means we need to rethink screening guidelines

Newcomer has a family history of the disease, so she knew she’d need additional screening — but she didn’t think she’d need it in the first half of her thirties.

“The diagnosis shocked me. I was more aware of colorectal cancer than most people. My father was a colon cancer survivor, diagnosed with stage I disease at age 46,” says Newcomer. “I was such a huge advocate for screening. I always knew I had to be screened at 35 for colorectal cancer, but It was a year before I needed to be screened, and the doctors dismissed my concerns, saying I didn't fit the profile of a typical colorectal cancer patient. They just kept telling me that I was too healthy to have cancer."

woman looking out the window at the rain

Awareness and self-advocacy may have saved her life.

Newcomer’s story highlights the need for more awareness around colorectal cancers, especially as they begin to affect younger patients. She advises other young people to really think about their risk profiles.

“I would ask family members [about] family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps, inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis-colorectal-cancer (Lynch syndrome),” she says. “I would also write down any signs and symptoms I was having and then schedule an appointment with a medical provider to review my symptoms.” 

“The screening age is now 45 based on this alarming increase we are seeing in the younger population,” says Dr. Lieu. 

With that being said, people with risk factors may require a different approach, so have a conversation with your physician to figure out when you should begin screening.

“Knowledge saves lives, and it is very important to get age-appropriate cancer screening and to know your family history,” says Dr. Lieu.

As for symptoms, here’s what people need to pay attention to.

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“The four symptoms we tell everybody to be aware of are, abdominal pain, seeing blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss, and anemia (low red blood cells) that doesn’t have a clear explanation,” says Dr. Lieu. “Unfortunately, the symptoms of cancer can be very vague, but we strongly encourage people not to ignore warning signs, and to meet regularly with their primary care physician.”

In most cases, young people will have the same symptoms as older people with colorectal cancer but will be more likely to brush off what they’re experiencing — or have their symptoms dismissed by a doctor.

What does treatment for colorectal cancer look like in young patients?

“It depends on the stage. If found at early stages, colorectal cancer has very high rates of survival,” says Dr. Lieu.  “Many of the treatments are the same [regardless of age at diagnosis], but the key is to address issues that are unique to a younger population, such as the impact on fertility, career, school, family, and finances.”

doctor discussing colorectal cancer with her young adult patient

The bottom line?

Colorectal cancers are affecting more young people. We can’t necessarily reverse that, at least without knowing more about the reasons for this alarming development.  

But here’s what we can do: We can take greater control of our understanding of our risks. Awareness is the first tool required for advocacy, and learning about your own risk profile, as well as what’s going on in the world of colorectal cancers, is our first step in taking control of our health where colorectal cancers are concerned.

Newcomer said it best. “Be your best health advocate. Knowing the signs and symptoms of CRC can save your life; if you are experiencing symptoms of colorectal cancer, you should push your healthcare provider for answers and seek second opinions,” she says. “You are never too young for colorectal cancer. Visit colorectalcancer.org for more information.”

Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, MarieClaire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.