Young People and Colon Cancer Diagnosis

There are many things associated with growing older—just look at wrinkles and sunspots. Sometimes cancer is mistakenly lumped with ailments of the elderly, but cancer is not a disease of the old and can strike any person at any age. Although you may be less likely to get certain types of cancer as a youth, getting diagnosed with colon cancer in your 40s, 30s, and even 20s is not an unheard-of phenomenon.

In years past, colon cancer was mislabeled as an old person's disease—essentially something that could not touch you under 50 years of age. Just a brief glance at the more recent statistics shows that this is not the case. From 2012 through 2016, the incidence of colorectal cancer in those under 50 increased by 2% each year. Although it is uncommon, there are even instances of children as young as 15 years old receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer.

There are a few specific types of cancer that occur in the younger population including leukemia, lymphoma, breast, testicular and colorectal cancers.

Concerned young man
Kondo Photography / Cultura / Getty Images

Advocate for Yourself

Most healthcare providers will not jump to a diagnosis of colon cancer in a young adult of 25 years, regardless of your presenting symptoms. Many symptoms of colon cancer mimic other, less serious gastrointestinal problems that are much more likely. Gas, bloating, and stomach pain are common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, for instance. If you have concerning symptoms, tell your healthcare provider—sometimes symptoms speak for themselves, such as weight loss and bloody stools—but don't readily accept a diagnosis if you don't believe it.

Typically, colon cancer screening starts after your 45th birthday, but there are always exceptions. If you have a family history of cancer—especially colorectal cancer—talk to your healthcare provider about getting screened sooner. The primary screening exam to rule out colon cancer is the colonoscopy, which allows the practitioner to see the lining of your colon and look for any polyps or masses within. If you don't have a family history of colorectal cancer but still harbor concern, there is nothing wrong with obtaining a second opinion for peace of mind.

Fertility Impact

In our culture, it is easier to accept a diagnosis of cancer in the elderly than it is for a young adult, teen, or child. The cliché is that the older adult has already lived a full life but the youth has not. There are many things to consider after a diagnosis of colon cancer, but for some young survivors who can no longer have children, fertility takes lead. During colon cancer treatment, there is a risk for both males and females of childbearing age to become infertile.

Although you should always choose the life-saving measure over the hope of someday having children, there is sometimes a way to have both. Talk to your healthcare provider about how your prescribed treatment will affect your future fertility. If there is any question, you may want to look into sperm or egg banking prior to treatment.

New Relationships

Many survivors face the challenge of how to inform future friends, lovers, and even spouses that they have a history of cancer. Although unfounded, the fear usually surrounds different concerns of rejection:

  • Who would want me?
  • I'm damaged goods.
  • My stoma is ugly.
  • What if my cancer returns?

If one of these thoughts has crossed your mind have no fear, they are completely natural concerns as you move forward with your life. However, when these fears stop you from entering healthy relationships or living a fulfilling life it might be time to speak up. Your body has been through a change, but cancer does not change who you are as a person. Sometimes, just sharing your concerns with another survivor can help.

Moving From Cancer Fighter to Cancer Survivor

During cancer treatment mode many people function on autopilot. Your time and schedule revolve around treatment appointments, healthcare provider's appointments, and testing. Once the treatment is finished, some people have a hard time moving out of the fighter phase and into the survivor era. The process is highly personal and no one can give you directions on how to move forward. However, if you consistently let the fear of recurrence rule your life, perhaps you are letting cancer win.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you get colon cancer at 20?

    Yes, you can get colon cancer at 20 years old but it is exceptionally rare. From 2016 to 2019, people in the U.S between the ages of zero to 49 had a 0.4% chance of developing cancer when they were previously cancer-free. The risk of colon cancer jumped to 3% in people who were 70 and older if they were previously cancer-free.

  • What age is colon cancer most common?

    Colon cancer is most common in people who are 85 and older. In 2018, the rate of colon cancer for people at least 85 years old was 225.8 per 100,000, with an estimated 14,677 new cases. This accounts for all races, ethnicities, and sexes.

  • Are colon cancer symptoms the same in young adults and older?

    Yes, the symptoms of colon cancer are similar between young adults and older people. These signs and symptoms include bloody stool, needing to have a bowel movement that does not offer relief, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, weakness, fatigue, unintentional loss of weight, and chronic diarrhea, constipation, or narrowed stool. In many cases these symptoms point to reasons other than colon cancer, but they are still worth mentioning to a doctor.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Cancer Institute. Adolescents and young adults with cancer.

  2. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for colorectal cancer.

  3. Shaukat A, Kahi CJ, Burke CA, Rabeneck L, Sauer BG, Rex DK. ACG clinical guidelines: colorectal cancer screening 2021Am J Gastroenterol. 2021;116(3):458-479. doi:10.14309/ajg.0000000000001122

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorectal (colon) cancer: What should I know about screening?

  5. Kumar A, Merali A, Pond GR, Zbuk K. Fertility risk discussions in young patients diagnosed with colorectal cancerCurr Oncol. 2012;19(3):155–159. doi:10.3747/co.19.942

  6. Winkler-crepaz K, Ayuandari S, Ziehr SC, Hofer S, Wildt L. Fertility preservation in cancer survivors. Minerva Endocrinol. 2015;40(2):105-18.

  7. American Cancer Society: Cancer Statistics Center. Colorectum: At a Glance.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Leading Cancers by Age, Sex, Race, and Ethnicity.

  9. American Cancer Society. Do I Have Colorectal Cancer? Signs, Symptoms, and Work-Up.

By Julie Wilkinson, BSN, RN
Julie Wilkinson is a registered nurse and book author who has worked in both palliative care and critical care.