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Colorectal Cancer Cases Are Dropping — Except Among Young Adults

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Colorectal cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States. It kills more than 50,000 Americans each year. The number of people getting and dying from colorectal cancer has actually been dropping steadily. This is mostly because more older adults are routinely getting screened for early signs of the disease. Yet, as NPR's Rob Stein reports, colorectal cancer has been rising for younger people.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Dustin Skoruppa was getting some routine medical tests done in September for a new job when the doctors spotted something.

DUSTIN SKORUPPA: So they sent me for colonoscopy, and they found a large mass. It ended up being cancer, and that started the whole ball rolling.

STEIN: Skoruppa was shocked. He's only 37 - really young to get this kind of cancer.

SKORUPPA: I was very surprised. There was no pain, nothing. No indications at all. It was out of left field.

STEIN: Soon after he got the bad news, Skoruppa, who lives in Robstown, Texas, found out his wife was expecting a baby. He had surgery to remove the tumor. Now he's making plans to start chemotherapy.

SKORUPPA: I'm going to be finishing up my chemotherapy right as around the time the baby is due.

STEIN: Skoruppa is unusual, but these days, less unusual than in the past. George Chang of the University of Texas and his colleagues recently took a look at what's happening with colorectal cancer in the United States. They found it's rising dramatically among the youngest adults. Colorectal cancer is still pretty rare among people in their 20s and 30s, but Chang and his colleagues also projected where this trend is heading.

GEORGE CHANG: Once we project ahead - not that far actually, only another 15 years - the effects are fairly dramatic...

STEIN: ...With the percentage of cases among the youngest adults expected to double. The results are reported in the journal JAMA Surgery. It's unclear why this trend is happening, but Chang says, there are some theories.

CHANG: The types of foods that we're eating, the rising incidence of obesity, the lack of physical activity. All of those have been associated with increasing risk for cancer and increasing risk for colorectal cancer.

STEIN: Whatever the cause, Chang thinks the trend may eventually lead to more younger people getting regular colonoscopies. In the meantime, he says, doctors should be on the lookout for this disease in their younger patients.

CHANG: It's important to think about this as a potential explanation for a patient's symptoms when they present with symptoms that might be attributable to colorectal cancer.

STEIN: So they can get treated when the cancer is still relatively small, and their chances of survival the highest. That's what happened to Dustin Skoruppa, who's grateful doctors just happened to stumble across his cancer early.

SKORUPPA: It was a blessing I was going to move overseas and had to get those tests. Otherwise, the colonoscopy is what ended up finding the cancer, and I'm only 37. I wouldn't have had a colonoscopy for another 10, 15, 20 years, and by then the cancer would have just been ravaging my body.

STEIN: Now Skoruppa hopes the surgery and chemotherapy will help him live long enough to see his new baby grow up.

Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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