Bowel cancer rates are on the rise in younger people across Europe, researchers have found.

Traditionally, the killer disease – which is mostly preventable – is considered to only strike people who are over the age of 50.

Now scientists have warned sedentary lifestyles, obesity and poor diets among the young are to blame for a ‘startling’ increase in cases. 

Rates of colon cancer among adults aged between 20 and 39 have shot up by 7.4 per cent annually between 2008 and 2016.

While rates of rectal cancer in the same age group have also jumped by 1.8 per cent each year since 1990. 

Traditionally, the killer disease - which is preventable - is considered to only strike people who are over the age of 50

Traditionally, the killer disease - which is preventable - is considered to only strike people who are over the age of 50

Traditionally, the killer disease – which is preventable – is considered to only strike people who are over the age of 50

Similar trends exist in the US, where 50,000 people die from bowel cancer each year, according to figures.

Dutch researchers said it adds to evidence public health authorities should make screening available much earlier than is currently offered.

BBC newsreader George Alagiah, who is receiving treatment for bowel cancer for the second time, is among those who have called for earlier testing.

Colorectal cancer is the medical term for bowel cancer. Three-in-four cases start in the colon and a quarter in the rectum. 

Bowel cancer strikes 41,000 each year in UK and kills 16,000, making it the second deadliest cancer – behind only lung cancer.

Survival rates are notoriously poor, as fewer than a tenth of patients survive for five years when it is diagnosed late, compared to 90 per cent if spotted early. 

Data from national cancer registries in the UK and 19 other European countries – including Ireland – highlighted it’s increasing prevalence in the under 40s.

Among 40 to 49 year-olds, the overall number of colorectal cases jumped by 1.4 per cent every year from 2005.


Bowel cancer screening is offered to those aged 60 to 74 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – but not anyone younger. 

The main screening method is the faecal occult blood test (FOBT), which looks for hidden blood in stools. It is posted to people in the age range every two years — they then post a sample back.   

Bowel cancer is the UK’s second biggest cancer killer – around 16,000 people die from it each year. 

If caught early, at stage one, patients have a 97 per cent survival rate for at least five years, but discovered later, at stage four, this falls to just 5 per cent for men and 10 per cent for women.

Former Tory health secretary Lord Andrew Lansley launched a screening programme, called bowelscope, to detect signs of cancer for 55 year olds eight years ago. It was due to be rolled out nationally in 2016 – but fell foul of financial cuts. 

Bowel cancer screening starts at 50 in Scotland. The decision to start 10 years later in the rest of the UK has been the subject of controversy.

BBC news presenter George Alagiah previously said his bowel cancer could have been caught earlier if the screening programme in England was the same as in Scotland. 

He was first diagnosed four years ago, at the age of 58; last Christmas he was told that the cancer had returned and it’s now stage four.


The analysis, presented at United European Gastroenterology conference in Vienna, spanned more than a quarter of a century.

Dr Fanny Vuik, lead author, said that the medical community is ‘aware’ that cases of colorectal cancer are increasing among young adults in North America. 

However, the gastroenterologist at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Holland added that data for Europe has, until now, been ‘limited’.

Addressing the conference, she said: ‘It’s worrying to see the startling rates at which colorectal cancer is increasing in the young.

‘The cause for this upward trend is still unknown.

‘Although it may be related to increasingly sedentary lifestyles, obesity and poor diets, all of which are known colorectal cancer risk factors.

Dr Vuik added that increased awareness and further scientific research to elucidate causes for this increasing trend are needed.

She said that doing so may help to ‘set up screening strategies to prevent and detect these cancers at an early and curable stage’. 

Dr Vuik added: ‘The highest increase in incidence was found in adults between 20 to 29 years of age.

‘Therefore, identifying young adults at high risk of colorectal cancer is essential to ensuring early diagnosis and optimal patient outcomes.’

Studies have found bowel tumours in younger patients are often more aggressive and more likely to be caught at a later stage than in older populations.  

Earlier this year it was announced men and women in England will be offered bowel cancer testing from the age of 50, bringing it in line with Scotland.

A UK National Screening Committee evidence review recommended everyone from 50 to 74 should be sent the home test kits.

It said the faecal immunochemical home testing kit (FIT), easier to use than the current faecal occult blood test, should be rolled out.

From this autumn, the current screening group of 60 to 74 year olds will have access to the test every two years.

It’s expected to be gradually rolled out to over 55s, followed by over 50s, but no timetable has yet been given.

What is bowel cancer and what are the symptoms?

Bowel, or colorectal, cancer affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum.

Such tumours usually develop from pre-cancerous growths, called polyps.

Symptoms include:

  • Bleeding from the bottom
  • Blood in stools
  • A change in bowel habits lasting at least three weeks
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme, unexplained tiredness
  • Abdominal pain

Most cases have no clear cause, however, people are more at risk if they: 

  • Are over 50
  • Have a family history of the condition
  • Have a personal history of polyps in their bowel
  • Suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease
  • Lead an unhealthy lifestyle  

Treatment usually involves surgery, and chemo- and radiotherapy.

More than nine out of 10 people with stage one bowel cancer survive five years or more after their diagnosis.

This drops significantly if it is diagnosed in later stages. 

According to Bowel Cancer UK figures, more than 41,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK. 

It affects around 40 per 100,000 adults per year in the US, according to the National Cancer Institute.



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