Colon Cancer in Younger Adults: MSK Colon Cancer Specialists Share Insights after Chadwick Boseman’s Passing

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Learn More about MSK's Center for Young Onset Colorectal Cancer

Gastroenterologist Robin Mendelsohn explains how young people with colorectal cancer are treated at MSK. She also discusses ongoing research into the causes of young onset colorectal cancer.
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An uptick in colorectal cancer in people under the age of 50 is an alarming trend that led Memorial Sloan Kettering to develop the first of its kind Center for Young Onset Colorectal Cancer in 2018. The center is dedicated solely to research and the specific treatment needs of people under 50 who have colorectal cancer.  The tragic news of actor Chadwick Boseman’s passing at age 43 has left many people with questions about how an aggressive colon cancer can affect someone so young and seemingly healthy.  MSK experts weighed in to help raise awareness and educate people about the symptoms to be aware of, and the importance of screening for these cancers.

“Since the 1990s we’ve seen this stark and shocking increase in those people under 50 [diagnosed],” Robin Mendelsohn, MD, co-director of the Center for Young Onset Colorectal Cancer at MSK told ABC’s Good Morning America. “They don’t seem to have the traditional risk factors. The majority of them do not have a family history of colon cancer.”

“The rise of early onset colorectal cancer remains an enigma. We need to raise awareness that people under the age of 50 can get this disease.” Andrea Cercek, MD, also a co-director of the  center at MSK, shared on NBC’s Today Show.

Why is colon cancer on the rise in young adults?

MSK’s team of experts is working to find out why these younger patients are developing the disease. During a recent Information Session for patients and caregivers, Dr. Cercek shared more about the center’s focus on getting to the root of this issue, “This is a unique population of young adults where previously we are used to colorectal cancer in patients in their 60s and 70s…the key now is to figure out who are these individuals at risk and then really focus on prevention in this specific subgroup. It’s actually a worldwide phenomenon. This is not something that is unique to New York or the east coast or the United States.  Really it’s happening worldwide.”

More research needs to be done into exactly why this trend is occurring as Dr. Mendelsohn talked about in a recent New York Times article: “She and her colleagues are exploring whether diet, medications like antibiotics, and the microbiome — which have all changed significantly for generations born in the 1960s and later — might be contributing to the cancer in younger people.”

If a person has persistent gastrointestinal symptoms, a family history of colorectal cancer, or a hereditary predisposition to the disease, he or she should tell their physician about that and they may need to undergo regular colonoscopies starting at a younger age.

COVID-19 has also delayed people of all ages from getting their routine colonoscopy. During the MSK information session, Dr. Mendelsohn talked about the importance of keeping up with those appointments, “Colon cancer screening has shown to significantly reduce not only the rates of colon cancer but also deaths from colon cancer, so screening definitely should not be ignored.”