Antibiotic use linked to early colorectal cancer
BOSTON — In recent years, infectious disease experts have urged doctors and hospitals to curb antibiotic prescribing in fear of the development of bacterial resistance. But a new study suggests there may be another reason to use these drugs sparingly.
Researchers have found a possible link between early antibiotic use and the development of colorectal cancer in early adulthood. Reports from a virtual meeting of gastrointestinal cancer specialists held last week said that the UK researchers behind this study used Scottish health data to compare 8,000 cases of colorectal cancer with 30,000 healthy ‘control’ subjects.
Data analysis found a 49% increased risk of developing colon cancer in those with a history of antibiotic use before age 50. The researchers note it’s also possible other risk factors previously cited for colorectal cancer, including an unhealthy diet, obesity and alcohol, could also be contributors.
As to why antibiotics might lead to cancer later, one theory is that beneficial, and ultimately protective, bacteria that naturally populate the gut get killed off when antibiotics are used. Those bacteria readily recolonize. But if antibiotic use is frequent, perhaps a window of opportunity develops for cancer cells to grow.
The U.S. government recently recommended lowering the age for colorectal cancer screening to 45 from 50 in response to a growing trend for the disease to show up in younger individuals. In fact, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which has a center devoted to treating younger colorectal cancer patients, predicts that by 2030 colon cancer rates among those 20-34 years of age will increase 90% and rectal cancer rates will soar 124%.
The Institute notes that many large bowel cancers in younger adults are caught in later stages because no one is expecting that cohort to develop cancers traditionally associated with aging.
David Thau was 34 years old when doctors finally found his colon cancer. For years he’d been dealing with symptoms that included stomach aches, rectal bleeding and other, more vague symptoms.
“Even walking up a flight of stairs I’d be doubled-over, really winded,” Thau said. “I saw a cardiologist because I thought maybe it was a heart issue. Everything came back clean.”
But one day, Thau developed stomach pains that would not go away. They even caused him to miss work, something he never did.
“The pain just got so acute that I couldn’t move,” he said.
On the advice of his wife, he saw a doctor, who wound up sending him to a hospital emergency department.
“The CT scan is what found my tumor,” Thau recalled.
After undergoing surgery and 12 rounds of chemotherapy, Thau remains cancer-free 18 months later. Did he take antibiotics as a kid? Of course. But, he said, it was no amount out-of-the-ordinary.
And while he was appreciative of the attention this research brought to the subject of colorectal cancer in younger adults, Thau said it underscores why more research is needed:
“I think this brings more attention to the fact that we just don’t know,” he said.
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