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Report: Colon cancer rates rising in younger generations

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Stacey Betancourt had no reason at all to suspect she had cancer.

When she was 27, she started suffering pain and irregular bowel habits. The worst her doctors thought it might be was irritable bowel syndrome.

It turned out to be cancer.

"It was a huge shock. When the doctor told me … it was cancer, the first words that came out of my mouth were 'I am only 27,'" Betancourt said.

Betancourt, now 31, is far from alone. She's among the younger Americans who are at higher risk of colon cancer and rectal cancer than their parents were.

A new American Cancer Society study out Tuesday shows people born in 1990 and later have double the risk of colon cancer, and four times the risk of rectal cancer, than people in their parents' generation did at the same age.

"Every generation after 1950 has a little bit higher risk," she said. "The largest increases are in people in their 20s."

And for these younger generations, the risk of colon cancer goes up even more as they get older.

Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in Americans, according to the American Cancer Society. Colon cancer will be diagnosed in more than 95,000 people this year and nearly 40,000 will be diagnosed with rectal cancer.

The two cancers will kill more than 50,000 people this year.

Betancourt, of Cypress, Texas, said she had no obvious risk factors. No one in her family has had colon cancer, she said.

"They said I probably had this cancer for at least 10 years. I never showed any symptoms," added Betancourt.

"I had it for a while. I am still shocked. It still surprises me. There is this idea that it an old person's disease and it is really not."

Colon cancer rates had been going down since 1974, the American Cancer Society team said. But their new look at the data showed that colon cancer incidence rates increased by 1 percent to 2 percent a year in people aged 20 to 39 starting in the mid-1980s.

People are not advised to start getting colon cancer screening until they are 50, but Siegel said it may be time to rethink screening recommendations.

She says it's not at all clear why younger people are developing the cancer more often. But risk factors for colon cancer include eating meat, especially processed meat, smoking and obesity.

"It is interesting that the increase in colorectal cancer incidence is in parallel with the obesity epidemic," Siegel told NBC News.

Here are the symptoms for anyone of any age to be aware of:

Bleeding from the rectum Blood in the stool Abdominal cramping A change in the shape of the stool, diarrhea, constipation A change in bowel habits, or the feeling that you need to make a bowel movement but there is none

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