With various campaigns urging people over 50 years old to screen for colon cancer (colon or rectal cancer), it is not surprising that most people associate this disease with older adults. However, the third most diagnosed cancer can also affect younger adults as well, and it can also strike children. Most colon cancers are slow growing, and an estimated 95% are potentially curable if they are diagnosed early enough. However, only 40% of adults are diagnosed at the local stage, and colon cancer in children is even less likely to be spotted early.
With only around three out of every 15 million kids diagnosed with colorectal cancer, it is not surprising that it is not immediately suspected in youngsters. However, there have been cases of toddlers under three years old developing this deadly disease, and even one case of a five- month old baby being diagnosed. Unfortunately, the lack of obvious symptoms means that diagnosis consequently tends to be later in children than it is in adults, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. When it does occur, colon cancer is recognized as being far more aggressive in children, which means, in concert with late diagnosis, it can be a particularly dangerous form of cancer in kids.
While a family history of cancer can increase the likelihood of colon cancer in both adults and children alike, when it occurs in children, the disease is often due to an abnormality in the colon tissue. This abnormality can result in a tumor, or a polyp, which can then develop into cancer. Early screening can detect any abnormal tissue before the cancer cells develop; early treatment can then begin to minimize the threat.
One of the major obstacles to early detection of colon cancer in children, as well as in adults, is that the symptoms are sometimes vague or may even go unnoticed for some time. However, symptoms to watch out for are blood and/or mucous in the stools, pencil-thin stools, frequent diarrhea or constipation not caused by infection, weight loss, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating, and extreme tiredness.
The most effective means of diagnosing colon cancer in children is a colonoscopy. In order to identify inflammation of the lymph nodes and other tissues caused by colon cancer, colonoscopy screening allows a camera to look inside the bowel and detect any problems such as polyps. During the procedure, a biopsy can also be performed and the tissue sent for pathological diagnosis to confirm whether any cancer is present, and, if so, determine what type of cancer it is. Additionally, a gene test can identify the risk of colon cancer. If a family has a history of colon cancer, the risk of having colon cancer yourself is increased.
A colonoscopy is not only a powerful diagnostic tool but also an invaluable aid to treatment. This is especially the case in children because the relatively short colon means that a smaller scope is needed. The colonoscopy enables the observation of any abnormalities as well as irritations in the bowel caused by viral infections or parasites. If there is a family history of polyps developing into cancer, then these can be easily removed during the colonoscopy. A polyp might also need to be removed because it can cause intestinal obstruction, bleeding, anemia and also abdominal pain. Other conditions that can be identified include cases of intussusception; this is where part of the intestines folds into proximal part of the intestines with the polyp as the leading point in creating a serious problem that needs to be treated immediately.
It is estimated that changes to lifestyle can help prevent up to 75% of colorectal cancer cases in adults. Although there are many causes of colon cancer in adults, there is no clear understanding of what causes the disease in children. Therefore, early screening is essential if any symptoms appear or if there is a family history of cancers, such as polyps developing into cancer cells.
Parents need to be mindful of nutrition to boost kids’ immune systems and lower youngsters’ risks of developing a variety of health issues that are diet related. The mantra is lots of fruit and vegetables and a good variety for antioxidants is key. A healthy balance of fat, protein and carbohydrates is essential for child development, with good bacteria from live yogurt helping the gut as well. It is not just what kids eat but also how they eat. Eating patterns, food quality and quantity all need to be considered. Cutting down on processed foods, as well as high-sugar and high-fat content meals is important. With kids enjoying sedentary, screen-oriented downtime more than ever before, getting kids involved with energetic, engaging activities is vital to good health for children and youngsters.
What cannot be ignored is the fact that colon cancer is increasingly affecting young adults and children. To view this disease as an old-age condition is misinformed. With obesity increasing amongst children at an alarming rate, it is paramount that parents start by looking at their own lifestyles and encourage children to be aware of health, exercise, and nutrition at an early age. Serving up foods with fresh ingredients, encouraging body awareness in children, and understanding childhood health issues needs to be high on any guide for modern-day parenting.
The Second Class Honors, M.D., Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, 1976.