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Chronic conditions increase colorectal cancer risk

According to a recent report from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) External Site, colorectal cancer — the third-leading cause of cancer death External Site in the United States — will be responsible for more than 53,000 deaths in 2020. Though colorectal cancer typically affects older adults, it can happen at any age.

Chronic conditions are linked to an increased risk for developing colorectal cancer — especially among millennials, one of the unhealthiest generations to date. With more than 75 percent of your workforce forecasted to be millennials by 2025, it’s more than likely your workforce will be affected — especially since most Americans aren’t receiving the recommended screenings.

It’s not all bad news, however: here’s how you can help reduce your employees’ risk of developing colorectal cancer.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, forms in the large intestine or rectum — starting as small, noncancerous clumps of cells called polyps. Because polyps are small and rarely produce noticeable symptoms, most people never know they’ve developed them unless they are found during a screening test External Site. Though the U.S. Preventive Services Taskforce doesn’t recommend this type of routine screening until age 50, the prevalence of colorectal cancer increases by 50 percent from 50 to 55 — meaning that delaying a screening could mean the difference between life or death.

Polyps don’t always cause symptoms after becoming cancerous, which is why many people with colorectal cancer don’t know they have it in the early stages of the disease External Site. When symptoms do develop, they may include:

  • Persistent change in bowel habits (i.e., stool consistency, diarrhea, or constipation)
  • Rectal bleeding or bloody stools
  • Frequent and persistent cramps, gas, or other abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness or fatigue

There are several risk factors for developing colorectal cancer. Some, like smoking, alcohol use, obesity, diet, and lifestyle, can be controlled. Others, like family history and age, cannot. If colorectal cancer does develop, there are several treatments to help control it, including surgery, radiation therapy and drug treatments, such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy, according to the Mayo Clinic External Site.

Colorectal cancer and your millennial employees

By now, you’ve probably heard us talk about how unhealthy millennials are. One in three have a health condition affecting their quality of life, only 68 percent have a primary care provider (PCP), and their health begins to decline as early as age 27.

Now, double-digit increases in three risk factors — Chron’s disease and ulcerative colitis, diabetes, and diagnosed obesity — among this age group significantly increases the risk External Site of future colorectal cancer diagnoses.

Data from the Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) Health Index External Site show that patients with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are at a nearly twofold increased risk for colorectal cancer, and patients with diabetes or diagnosed obesity are at a 1.7 and 1.3 times greater risk of getting colorectal cancer, respectively, compared to those without these conditions.

Despite this, only 31 percent of people under 50 with Chron’s or ulcerative colitis are getting screened. In general, this group avoids screenings because they don’t believe they’re at risk for colorectal cancer, their primary care provider hasn’t recommended it, and they don’t have enough time to be screened.

How employers can help

Whether you work for a small business that employs only a few people or a large corporation that employs thousands, there are several ways to help your employees when it comes to understanding and acting on their colorectal cancer risk.

  • Stress the importance of prevention.

    Communicate the importance of getting screened with your employees — even if they feel fine. Even if your employees don’t have any risk factors, they may have family members or friends who do. There are several tests External Site External Site in addition to the standard colonoscopy that can be used to detect polyps or colorectal cancer. To encourage screenings, you could create an incentive program for eligible employees.

  • Encourage open communication with a PCP.

    A whopping 37 percent of millennials don’t have consistent access to preventive care, compared to just 9 percent of Gen X. Finding a PCP will help your employees build a strong, provider-patient relationship that will benefit them in the long run — especially if they feel uncomfortable bringing up topics they might find awkward. Plus, PCPs can work with your employees to identify the appropriate timing and frequency of screening to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. To help them choose a PCP, share this free downloadable guide PDF File with your employees.

Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark account representative, or email us at Send Email.