In recent years, an alarming number of millennials – young adults in their 20s and 30s today – are being diagnosed with colon cancer. Researchers with the National Cancer Institute predict that by 2030, colon cancer rates will increase by 90 percent for 20 to 34-year-olds and 28 percent for those 35 to 49.
Though a specific cause for the colon cancer trend has yet to be identified, many health professionals blame high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and with good reason: it has no nutritional value and it’s often added as an inexpensive sweetener to processed, high-calorie foods and drinks.
We know HFCS and other sugars are strongly associated with obesity, which is known to contribute to many serious health conditions, including colon cancer. As such, a recent study published in Science sought to understand whether HFCS also can be linked directly to colon cancer.
“Though a specific cause for the colon cancer trend has yet to be identified, many health professionals blame high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and with good reason: it has no nutritional value and it’s often added as an inexpensive sweetener to processed, high-calorie foods and drinks.”
Can HFCS cause colon cancer?
The study examined two groups of laboratory mice with genetically altered APC genes, which made them susceptible to colon cancer. Mice in the control group were fed a typical diet, and mice in the experimental group were fed a diet rich in HFCS. All mice in the study could potentially develop colorectal tumors, but mice in the latter group developed more and bigger tumors.
This occurred even in the absence of obesity and metabolic syndrome in the mouse tumor models. This finding supports the premise that HFCS might enhance development of colon cancer. The authors further hypothesized about a possible biological mechanism to explain this observation.
In humans, the APC gene is frequently mutated early in the process of colon cancer development and is altered in approximately 90 percent of colon cancer cases. However, in the study, the scientists took mice that already had this genetic alteration and were predisposed to developing colon cancer, even with typical diet. So, the study doesn’t directly pinpoint HFCS as causing colon cancer, but the data do suggest that eating too much of it can lead to its growth, especially if one is predisposed to the disease.
The cancer prevention and survivorship doctors at Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center work as a team to help patients reduce their risk of colon cancer or recurrence. As an academic medical center, we focus on patient education and empowerment, including making healthy lifestyle choices – especially in six specific areas.
Compassionate care for colon cancer
Oncologist Syed Kazmi, M.D., discusses his approach to guiding patients through the challenging time associated with a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
6 tips for millennials about colon cancer awareness
1. Limit extra calories through sweetened beverages
Based on the Science study, for colon cancer prevention, what we drink is as important as what we eat. Many sodas, sweetened juices, energy drinks, coffee creamers, and sports beverages include high-fructose corn syrup.
Many millennials grew up consuming these drinks daily, before red flags were raised about HFCS. And, though many people know it’s not good for them, HFCS can be tough to avoid since it is in so many American beverage mainstays.
Take a look at the label of the next processed beverage you buy. High-fructose corn syrup might be spelled out or labeled as “dextrose monohydrate” or “corn sugar.” To help reduce your overall sugar intake, watch for ingredients that include the word “syrup” or end in “-ose,” which is a common chemical suffix for sugar.
2. Eat a healthy diet
We’re not saying you can never enjoy another cookie. But eating sugar-laden, fatty, and processed foods regularly will sabotage your weight loss goals and can increase your risk for cancer and heart disease.
So, what is a healthy diet? Every patient has different nutritional needs, though we have found the Mediterranean diet to benefit a majority of patients of all ages. It includes a range of healthy and tasty foods, such as:
- Legumes (nuts and beans)
- Lean meats (fish, poultry)
- Whole grains
The goal is to reduce consumption of processed foods and red meat -- good advice for all patients, and particularly those at high risk for colon cancer. Basically, if it’s made in a factory, try not to eat it regularly.
Related reading: Here’s why colon cancer cases are rising in young adults
3. Watch your weight
While a general tip, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is among the most important choices anyone can make. Not only is carrying extra weight linked to colon, breast, and a range of other cancers, but obesity is strongly associated with developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
If you’ve tried to lose weight in the past to no avail, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you create a plan that incorporates physical activity you enjoy – from walking and running to swimming and yoga – and a plan to help optimize your diet. Which brings us to our next tip.
Related reading: Obesity and cancer: How to decrease your risk
4. Know your risk
If you smoke, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, or have a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, you might be at greater risk to develop cancer than the general population. And if you have a personal history of either or if you have known genetic mutations, you are considered high-risk.
Certain gene mutations can be passed down through families that predispose people to colon cancer. Additionally, some families pass down Lynch syndrome, a disease associated with genetic predisposition to colon cancer.
Talk to your doctor about your health history. If you don’t have that information, ask whether you might benefit from genetic testing to learn more about your personal risk.
5. Get screened
The recommended age for people at average risk of colon cancer to begin screening is 45, lowered from age 50 by the American Cancer Society in 2017. However, individuals at high risk, as noted in point No. 4, should consider early screening.
Colonoscopy is still considered the gold standard of colon cancer prevention. During the exam, the doctor can find precancerous polyps and remove them, effectively preventing cancer. However, if you are concerned about colonoscopy, there are other types of screening tests your doctor can recommend.
6. Make changes now – not later
If you grew up eating unhealthy foods or fell into less healthy habits as an adult, it’s not too late to make changes. Research shows that you can benefit from quitting smoking, eating better or getting more exercise at any age, no matter what your habits were before.
And if you have children, now is the best time to start modeling healthy behaviors and feeding them more nutritious foods. They might resist at first if they’re used to soda and chips. But over time, healthier eating will become the new norm. And remember, “healthy eating” doesn’t mean never eating sweets, fats or red meat – just not every day.
While the Science study doesn’t directly tie high-fructose corn syrup to colon cancer, the data add to the body of research that examines its role in disease development. The Science study highlighted that excess HFCS can promote colon cancer formation in mice, regardless of obesity. This finding is yet to be confirmed in humans, but it indicates the role of maintaining a healthy diet in prevention of colorectal cancer.
UT Southwestern will continue to conduct clinical trials for all stages of colon cancer, from prevention through more effective treatments. One day, we hope our research will explain why more young adults are developing the disease and help us develop tools to prevent cancer in more patients going forward.