Gastrointestinal cancers: What symptoms you should look out for as colon cancer rates rise in young Canadians

Colon cancer rates are rising in young Canadians. Here's what to know about risks for different abdominal cancers.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Princess of Wales Kate Middleton was diagnosed with cancer following abdominal surgery. (Photo by Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Princess of Wales Kate Middleton was diagnosed with a cancer following abdominal surgery, but details on what type of cancer she has have not been released. (Photo by Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu via Getty)

A Canadian mom says she was "drowning in grief" after her 38-year-old son died from colon cancer last summer. Now, she's raising awareness and is "encouraging younger people to get screened and be aware of symptoms," the Ottawa Citizen reported.

"I call it a monster. Cancer is a monster," Yvonne McIsaac told the Ottawa Citizen.

Rates of colorectal cancer are rising in young Canadians, with one 2022 study finding that Canadians born after 1980 are two to two-and-a-half times more likely to be diagnosed before the age of 50 than previous generations at the same age. However, the Ottawa Citizen reported that people in that age group are often dismissed by healthcare professionals "based solely on their age."

Canadians' attention has been gripped since recent news that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was diagnosed with cancer following abdominal surgery. While the specific type of cancer in her diagnosis has not been disclosed, this cast a spotlight on gastrointestinal (GI) cancers.

The Princess of Wales, 42, shared last week she's in early stages of preventative chemotherapy and is "well," after weeks of speculation about her health following a "planned surgery" in January. "At the time, it was thought that my condition was non-cancerous," Middleton said in a video. "The surgery was successful, however tests after the operation found cancer had been present."

Health awareness is a priority for many Canadians, so understanding these cancers is crucial for early detection and effective treatment. Yahoo Canada looked into the various types of GI cancers, their risk factors and early signs with Dr. Eric Chen, a medical oncologist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.

What are GI cancers?

Gastrointestinal cancers refer to malignancies affecting the digestive system. Chen explains, "there are many different kinds of GI cancers because the GI tract stretches from the esophagus to the rectum."

This includes cancers of the esophagus, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, small intestine, bowel (large intestine or colon and rectum) and anus. Chen highlights that these cancers, particularly colorectal cancer, have become more common in younger people, and they are among the most common and deadly in the country.

First signs and symptoms of GI cancers

Woman having painful stomachache. Persistence of various GI symptoms can  be a key indicator that you should seek medical attention, regardless of cancer risk. (Getty Images)
Persistence of various GI symptoms can be a key indicator that you should seek medical attention, regardless of cancer risk. (Getty Images)

Chen points out "most early cancers do not cause any symptoms," highlighting the value of screening programs. He adds it's difficult to generalize symptoms, but some signs of gastrointestinal cancers that may overlap include:

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort

  • Changes in bowel habits (diarrhea or constipation)

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Changes in hunger cues

  • Fatigue or weakness

However, these symptoms are not specific to GI cancers alone and can be associated with a range of other health conditions, Chen confirms. However, their persistence can be a key indicator that you should seek medical attention.

While these symptoms can indicate any issue with the digestive system and can be vague, each type of GI cancer has unique risk factors and some have specific early signs.

GI cancers: Types, risks & early symptoms

Gastrointestinal cancers include a range of malignancies affecting the digestive system's organs and each type has distinct characteristics, risks and implications for health.

Chen reiterates that common risk factors include smoking and alcohol consumption, while family history plays a crucial role in assessing individual risk levels. The Canadian Cancer Society adds that diet, physical activity and regular screening can significantly impact the risk and detection of these cancers.

The five most common GI cancers, according to Yale Medicine, include the following:

Colorectal cancer

close up of female doctor hand wear white coat holds blue ribbon in front of her chest with colon model on table
Cases of colorectal cancer in young people have been rising in Canada. (Getty Images)

The second most common cancer in Canadian women and third in men, colorectal cancer is highly detectable through screening processes like colonoscopies. The Canadian Cancer Society outlines risk factors such as age, family history of colorectal cancer, diet high in red and processed meats, physical inactivity, obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption.

Esophageal cancer

This cancer forms in the esophagus, presenting initial symptoms like difficulty swallowing and weight loss. The Mayo Clinic outlines the two main types: adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, each with different risk factors and prevalence rates. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and chronic acid reflux as significant risk factors for esophageal cancer.

Stomach (gastric) cancer

Stomach cancer often goes undetected in early stages due to non-specific symptoms. The Canadian Cancer Society highlights the importance of recognizing subtle signs like indigestion and stomach discomfort, which can be early indicators. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, risk factors include a diet high in salty and smoked foods, smoking and stomach bacterium.

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreas cancer, illustration.Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often vague. (Getty Images)
Symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often vague. (Getty Images)

Known for its aggressive nature, pancreatic cancer's risk factors include smoking, obesity, and a family history of the disease, as detailed by Cancer Care Ontario. Symptoms are often vague, including jaundice and abdominal pain, which complicates early detection.

Cancer Care Ontario highlights smoking, obesity and a history of pancreatitis as key risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

Liver cancer

Primary liver cancer is closely associated with liver diseases like hepatitis and cirrhosis. According to the American Cancer Society, symptoms can include weight loss, upper abdominal pain and jaundice.

The American Cancer Society notes that chronic infection with hepatitis B or C and cirrhosis are major risk factors for liver cancer.

Diagnosis and prevention: What Canadians need to know

Diagnosing abdominal or GI cancers can include bloodwork, imaging or CT scans and endoscope. (Getty Images) asian male doctor wearing protective gown is doing colonoscopy for elderly man and finding cytopathic effect or tumor
Diagnosing abdominal or GI cancers can include bloodwork, imaging or CT scans and endoscope. (Getty Images)

The Canadian Cancer Society's guidelines suggest that individuals aged 50 to 74 undergo regular colorectal cancer screenings — a key practice in early detection and prevention. Chen adds, "we encourage patients over the age of 50 to have at least a FIT test." FIT tests, or fecal immunochemical tests, detect blood in your stool (poop) — which could indicate pre-cancer.

Explaining the diagnostic process, Chen says, "The diagnosis of GI cancer... can be through screening and/or when patients develop symptoms." He elaborates that diagnosis may involve "bloodwork, some kind of imaging, or CT scan and endoscope."

Chen advises, "If you have any symptoms that you are worried about...the first thing to do is reach out to your family physician."

The integration of lifestyle modifications, such as maintaining a healthy diet and engaging in regular physical activity, is recommended to reduce the risk of GI cancers.

For more information on GI cancers, including detailed guides on symptoms, risk factors, and prevention strategies, visit reputable sources like the Canadian Cancer Society and Cancer Care Ontario.

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