With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley

Q: What has changed recently with colorectal cancer rates among Americans?

A: Many people are surprised by recent reports that younger Americans rank among the fastest growing segment of the nation’s population to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, a cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. People in their 20s and 30s were found to experience a sharp uptick – by about 1 to 2 percent per year – for colon cancer and an even bigger rate increase for rectal cancer. To put that in perspective, about 3 in 10 new cases of rectal cancer are diagnosed in patients younger than age 55. That’s double the ratio from thirty years ago. To be sure, the findings serve as a wake-up call for Millennials and the Gen-X generation. Although it remains inconclusive as to what is definitively causing early incidence of the disease among younger generations, the case is clear that better public awareness will help protect public health. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 95,000 new cases of colon cancer and nearly 40,000 new cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year. By year’s end, 50,000 people in the U.S. will die from colorectal cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the third most common and the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States for cancers affecting both men and women.

Q: How will public awareness help improve survival rates?

A: As with many cancers, early detection, treatment and prevention are the medical trifecta to survive diagnosis. My wife Barbara is a 30-year breast cancer survivor and attributes early detection with saving her life. The month of March is set aside for public health advocates, policymakers and medical professionals to raise public awareness about colon cancer and early screening. It is an important opportunity for education and outreach and to remind Americans to take symptoms seriously. Although not every symptom will translate into a colorectal cancer diagnosis, it’s better to be safe than sorry. According to the CDC, colorectal cancer typically starts from precancerous polyps, an abnormal growth in the colon or rectum. With early detection, they can be removed before turning into cancer. I encourage Iowans to be your own advocate and talk with your health care provider about this disease. Don’t dismiss symptoms, such as abdominal pain, rectal bleeding or a change in bowel habits. The CDC reports that one’s risk for colorectal cancer may be higher for those with a close relative diagnosed with the disease, for those with inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Studies show that early screening can detect colorectal cancer when it’s still more likely to be curable. And with the recent revelation that colorectal cancer incidence is surging among young Americans, it’s critical for the word to get out that it’s never too early to start eating healthier, commit to regular physical activity, keep on top of symptoms and keep up on regular wellness exams and recommended health screenings. Talk with your health care provider about what’s right for you. Whether it’s a diagnostic colonoscopy or other less invasive screening, there are several options for patients and their doctors to consider for colorectal cancer screening. Medicare recently added a stool-based screening test approved by the FDA for eligible patients once every three years. I encourage Iowans to take advantage of National Colon Cancer Awareness Month and take a “gut check.” In other words, take stock of your colorectal health.