Why More White People Get Colon Cancer

When Crawford Clay discovered blood on his shorts at the end a routine run in the spring of 2014, he did not know the stains were a symptom of a condition that also afflicted his family.

His doctor said it was likely hemorrhoids, but as a precaution, the physician scheduled a colonoscopy.

The exam revealed Clay had rectal cancer. He was 43, seven years younger than the recommended age for colon screenings and completely in the dark about the symptoms associated with the condition. Clay didn’t know that his grandfather had the disease or that he would be diagnosed in the same week as his dad.

“I knew nothing,” he said.

Clay is not the only person caught unawares by this diagnosis.

Authors of a research letter published Tuesday in JAMA found that rates of colorectal cancer among adults under age 55 and the number of deaths among that age group are rising. They also discovered some surprising demographic trends. The number of whites being diagnosed with colorectal cancer and their mortality rates are rising, even as blacks are seeing a decline in both categories. Despite those declines, however, blacks still have higher rates of death from the disease, the study found.

Researchers studied rates of colorectal cancer and deaths for individuals aged 20 to 54 from 1970 through 2014, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics. NCHS uses death certificates reported by every state and the District of Columbia to gather this information.

Crawford Clay, from Macon, Ga., was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at age 43. He has lobbied on Capitol Hill to raise awareness for patient access to treatment. (Courtesy of Crawford Clay/Colon Cancer Alliance)

Rebecca Siegel, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society and lead author of the letter, said these findings suggest the increasing tally of people dying from colorectal cancer is not just because extra screening is verifying more cases. While the steady uptick in deaths is small — 1 percent annually from 2004 to 2014 — the rising mortality rates are occurring in what is supposed to be a healthy population.

“It tells us that not only is this a true increase in disease incidence,” she said, “… but this increase is enough to outweigh the survival in all age groups because of better treatment.”

When exploring the racial disparity, the researchers found that among whites the death rate increased from 3.6 to 4.1 cases per 100,000 people from 2004 to 2014. In contrast, the number of blacks…

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