A new American Cancer Society study conducted over the period between 1974 and 2013 looked at over 490,000 people over the age of twenty who were diagnosed with invasive colorectal cancer and found that their risk of colon cancer quadrupled the risk of them developing rectal cancer.

This alarming study defied the commonly accepted notion that risk of colorectal cancer generally increased with age, especially with regards to young people in general. For those over fifty-five years of age, the findings showed that the rates generally declined for them.

Millennials, per the dictionary, are defined as persons born in the 1980s and 1990s. To put it in perspective, someone born in 1990 would be twenty-seven-years-old now, and the likelihood of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer sometime in their lifetime-during the primes of their lives-increases day by day. The study’s authors hypothesize that obesity and a sedentary lifestyle along with a high fat, low fiber diet may be contributing factors. What those physical and dietary factors do is “initiate inflammation and proliferation in the colonic mucosa” in as little as two weeks’ time.

Historically, some risk factors for colorectal cancer include a positive family history, obesity, inactivity, smoking, a diet “high in red and processed meats” and “heavy” alcohol consumption increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Also, increasing risk is a history of premalignant polyps and having Type II diabetes. Certain hereditary syndromes and history of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis also increase the risk.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer can include rectal bleeding, dark or bloody stools, change in bowel habits or a change in the caliber of stool, weakness, fatigue and/or weight loss.

Treatments for colorectal cancer include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and targeted therapies which can target specific molecules to slow tumor growth or decrease the formation of new blood vessels.

If millennials continue to display alarming and increasing rates of colorectal cancer with some having excellent, well-balanced diets and rigorous exercises, that all possible causes need to be examined extensively. The lack of solid proof leads some medical researchers and practitioners to believe there might be a correlation between a negative attitude, outlook on life, and negative emotions may also be key factors. Studies have shown that negative emotions do have an impact on our physical health, a general feeling of malaise or phantom pains. Could it be possible that they could also play a role in colorectal health?

Quoting from Chapter 5 “Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism – Contempt Causes Insanity” in The History or New Innovations in Modern Medicine in comment on the field of Psychosomatics, Mr. Siegel notes that “From the psychosomatic point of view, it is fairly clear that if the self “hates” reality, one of the components of the very basis of disease is accepted by it.”

The good news is that increasing awareness of this potential for colorectal cancer in millennials is leading to consideration of this diagnosis in younger patients with rectal bleeding, and therefore, earlier testing and treatment.

Further research on the roles of diet, exercise and the psychosomatic approach to cancer may help shed light on the startling rise in millennial colorectal cancer rates.

By James Okun, MD