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Bowel Cancer Now High Risk For Young People, Not Just The Old

Now the most common cause of cancer death for Australians aged 25-29.

Bowel cancer incidence is skyrocketing among young people, with the condition often considered an issue only for older generations now greatly concerning doctors treating those under the age of 50.

Bowel cancer is now the most common cause of cancer death for Australians aged between 25 and 29. Bowel cancer ties with brain cancer for the most common cancer deaths in those aged 30-34. While Australian statistics are still being collated, a recent American study found a 186 percent increase in bowel cancer cases among those aged 15-24 in the last three decades.

The statistics make for stark reading, considering bowel cancer is often seen as a problem only for older people. Research is still ongoing, but diet -- especially processed foods full of additives and preservatives -- has been tipped as a main cause for the spike in bowel cancer among the young, with sleeping patterns, exercise and obesity also among the theories.

Computer artwork of a cancerous tumour (bottom) and polyps in a colon.

"We're seeing now younger people, under 50, who are forming bowel cancers and they have no family history or specific risk factors," Associate Professor Graham Newstead, a colorectal surgeon and member of Bowel Cancer Australia, told ten daily.

"We don't have the very latest figures yet, however I go to meetings and talk to colleagues and have my own practise, and we're seeing many many more young people. We've seen a pregnant women at 36 with late stage bowel cancer."

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, and a major theme in 2018 is "never too young" to think about the risk, and get tested.

"You know your body better than anyone else. Don't take as an answer that you're too young to get bowel cancer," Julien Wiggens, Bowel Cancer Australia's CEO, told ten daily.

Bowel cancer has a very high survival rate if detected, with up to 90 percent of cases able to be treated successfully, but doctors say patients are forced to wait long periods between detection and a follow-up colonoscopy. The waiting list in NSW is 160 days, in South Australia it is 182 days and 175 days in Tasmania, far longer than the one month timeframe recommended by the World Health Organisations.

One in three Australians with a positive cancer screening are waiting more than six months for a diagnosis.

But while older Australians are provided with free in-home screening kits every two years, doctors are concerned about rising bowel cancer rates among young people who do not consider that they may need to watch out for the condition, while doctors may discount that possibility when younger people present with health issues.

"When younger people are diagnosed, it is usually at an advanced stage. Medical staff rule it out, they don't think it's bowel cancer when someone has rectal bleeding, anemia, unexplained weight loss," Wiggens said.

"It's an education process for the medical profession. Let's bring that forward in the discussion, not just at the end, after going back five or six times to the GP to find the symptoms."

Despite bowel cancer being Australia's second deadliest cancer, according to Bowel Cancer Australia, it is still sometimes overlooked. It is the theme behind a new campaign from the group, narrated by British comedian Bill Bailey, titled 'give a s**t about your bowel'.

Bowel Cancer Australia has recommended people screen every two years from age 50, or from 45 if a relative has previously been diagnosed. However, Wiggens said new guidelines recommend those with a family history of bowel cancer start screening from age 35, with colonoscopies from 45.

Wiggens said while free screening kits were provided for older people, and the age at which the government provided the kits was being lowered, that young people shouldn't wait if they had concerns. Screens can be purchased at pharmacies for around $30, he said, or could be obtained through some health insurance policies.

"We don't want to put a scare factor into this but what we do want young people to do is not assume, and this refers to their GPs as well, don't assume your rectal bleeding is something innocent like a hemorrhoid. This goes for their GPs as well," Newstead said.

"It's not only your right but your responsibility to know your family history, and if it puts you at greater risk."

Newstead called on the government to expand public colonoscopy programs, make screening programs more widely available, and lower the age from which free in-home kits are made available to citizens.

"Don't ignore bleeding, and consider getting yourself bowel screened. The American Cancer Society recently released new recommendations for screening at 45. I'd absolutely support that," he said.