Young colorectal cancer patients commonly diagnosed at advanced stages, survey finds

Patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer prior to turning 50 were often misdiagnosed, which may result in a diagnosis at more advanced stages of the disease, according to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). 

Researchers surveyed 1,195 patients. Fifty-seven percent were diagnosed with colorectal cancer between ages 40 and 49, 33 percent were diagnosed between ages 30 and 39 and nearly 10 percent were diagnosed before 30.

Overall, 71 percent of those surveyed were diagnosed at stage III or IV. For comparison, patients over the age of 50 are significantly more likely to be diagnosed at stage I or II, according to a news release from the association.

“Physicians may attribute patients’ symptoms to more common conditions, like hemorrhoids or inflammatory bowel syndrome, and may lack the urgency to refer patients to tests that may identify early-stage colorectal cancer,” said lead author, Ronit Yarden, PhD, director of medical affairs at the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, in the same release.

“Young people need to be aware that colorectal cancer can happen at any age and it is not a disease of old people,” Yarden added. “Everybody should listen to their body and, if it doesn’t feel right, go to the doctor to be tested.”

Survey results also showed 63 percent of respondents waited three to 12 months to see a physician after experiencing symptoms, typically because they did not equate the feelings with colorectal cancer. The disease can be hard to diagnose based on symptoms, according to Yarden, which can include constipation, weight-loss and fatigue, and often appear in many different conditions.

Additionally, 67 percent visited at least two doctors prior to their diagnosis, with some seeing up to four. According to Yarden, many of these young patients were misdiagnosed, which led to delays in treatment.

Current recommendations from the U.S. Preventative Task Force call for screening in adults aged 50 to 75, some societies suggest even earlier beginning at age 45. Those with a family history of the disease should begin screening by age 40.

The results of the survey were presented during a preview of the AACR Annual Meeting 2019 taking place March 29 through April 3 in Atlanta.