Although it has the stigma as an "elderly disease," colon cancer can strike any person of any age. Statistically speaking, it is unlikely that your young child or teen will be diagnosed with colon cancer. However, rare genetic mutations in your family tree can increase the children's risk of developing this disease. The things you teach your child, such as how to eat healthy or exercise daily, will carry into adulthood and help protect his colon long after he leaves the nest.
Colon cancer is most typically diagnosed after you are 50 years old. One explanation for this is the fact that polyps in the colon – the ones that can eventually turn cancerous – take years to decades to grow and mutate. This is the main reason why screening tests and polyp removal is so vital to beating colorectal cancer.
Certain genetic mutations can be passed down to your children. It is impossible to inherit or catch colon cancer, but it is possible to inherit the genes that helped the cancer grow. Check out your family's medical history and look for any of the following genetic syndromes that can lead to colon cancer, from most to least common:
- Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP)
- Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC) or Lynch Syndrome
- Juvenile Polyposis Syndrome (JPS)
- Peutz Jeghers Syndrome (PJS)
- MYH-Associated Polyposis (MAP)
- Gardner Syndrome
- Turcot Syndrome
If someone in your immediate family (first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling) has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, genetic testing might benefit your family. The person with the cancer could opt for genetic testing, which would show if a gene mutation was responsible for helping the cancer grow. If the gene testing is positive, meaning that there is a gene mutation that helped lead to colon cancer, family members can get tested to see if that specific mutation is present in his or her blood.
However, genetic testing is not foolproof. Between 15 and 30 percent of the people diagnosed with FAP had no family history of the disease prior to that person getting it. If you or a loved one are considering genetic testing, talk to your doctor. He or she can refer you to a genetic counselor, someone who is highly trained to help you interpret the results and meaning of your gene testing.
Screening and Treatment
If there is a family history of colorectal cancer or gene mutations, family members can discuss early screening exams with the doctor. In some cases, your doctor may encourage getting screened earlier than the national recommendations, which currently start at 50 years of age. Likewise, if your child has a genetic syndrome listed previously, such as FAP, he or she will require more aggressive screening and treatment to protect his or her colon from cancer. Colonoscopies may start as early as 10 years of age, and many children with FAP end up having a colectomy (complete bowel removal surgery) by the late teens.
Helping Your Child Make Better Food Choices
Your child models his or her eating habits from your examples. Even if your child is in the teenage years, it is still not too late to make a difference in his or her eating habits. A few facts about diet and your child's cancer risk:
- Colon cancer has been linked to a diet rich in red meat, fat and alcohol
- Obese children typically can grow to be obese adults – obesity is a risk factor for cancer
Optimally, parents can start teaching children how to eat healthy from the first bite of solid food. Although you may have to put those healthy foods on your child's plate up to six times before he or she will actually take a bite, the persistence will pay off. To teach younger children how to make better food choices consider:
- Taking your child to the store and teaching about the different colors, textures, and tastes of fresh produce
- Always placing at least two fresh vegetables on your child's plate with each meal
- Reducing the number of times per week that your family eats out – especially in fast food establishments
- Letting your child play with the fresh fruits and vegetables on the plate – it's fun to pop the seeds of a pomegranate or make smiley faces out of orange peels
If your children are in the early or late teenage years, nutritional education can take a more serious approach including:
- Encouraging your teen to help you prepare meals – teens can also enjoy the textures and aromas of fresh vegetables, fruits and grains
- Take every opportunity to teach your teens about the effects of good and bad food choices in your body
- Continue to act as a role model for your teen, filling your plate with healthy choices
- Use educational tools that your teen can identify with, including multimedia
- Teach your teen about your family history so that he or she can understand the importance of advocating for his or her own health moving forward
The Importance of Exercise
Both youngsters and teens are part of the generation referred to as Generation Z or the Net Generation. These youths are intelligent, multimedia minded kids and multi-tasking geniuses. Make sure you help your child – teen or school aged – learn the importance of physical exercise. Exercising daily is tied to a lower risk of developing not only colon cancer, but many other chronic diseases as well. It will improve your child's cardiovascular fitness, stamina, and might even help her sleep better at night.
Don't fight the Net Generation's love of technology – embrace it. If you're having difficulty getting your teen off the couch, consider getting them to exercise using one of the more popular motion-based game counsels, many of which have dancing games, exercise games, and even sports games that make your child get up and move. Younger children might get a thrill from earning Presidential recognition for exercise. Helping your son or daughter earn the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award (PALA) is a great way to get started. You can find information on the PALA challenge here.
American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society’s Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.
Plon, S.E. (n.d.). Genetics of Colon Cancer in Teenagers. Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital. Accessed November 9, 2012.
American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Physical Activity and Cancer. Accessed November 8, 2012.
Nationwide Children's Hospital. (n.d.). Polyposis Disorders. Accessed November 8, 2012.