The fear of colorectal cancer as a springboard for change
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The numbers are moving in the wrong direction for our younger generations. And it’s scary.

Increasingly, millennials are getting—and dying from—colorectal cancer.   


As a tail-end baby boomer and parent, every time I see another headline about a negative health trend among our younger generations, I get an awful, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I mean, isn’t it a more promising future we’re after for our youth? And if this is what it’s like for our millennials, what’s in store for Gen Z?

Now, one in 10 colorectal cancers are diagnosed in people under 50—with 62 percent of young cancer survivors having no family history of the disease. Even more frightening is the projection that by 2030, colon cancer will go up by 90 percent and rectal cancer by as much as 124 percent among our 20 to 34-year-olds.

Cancer and its causes are complex. And experts are working to understand what’s behind the unsettling uptick in this younger population.      

But research also provides some ideas of what might be contributing, at least in part, to it. Along with obesity, too little exercise and too much sedentary time—dangerous yet common side effects of modern, high-tech lifestyles—are among the possible suspects, one recent study suggests.

The truth is, when I see news and statistics like these, I’m alarmed. I’m frightened. And I can’t help feeling that we’ve just let things go too far. Now, our younger generations are paying the price. 


We’ve been talking about what policy wonks call “the physical inactivity crisis” for at least a decade. We know full well how important regular exercise and physical activity are to human health. Decades of research bear it out.

Study after study shows that physical activity is tremendously important in helping to prevent a formidable list of heart-breaking, costly chronic diseases—including colorectal cancer. In fact, regular physical activity helps reduce the risk of many types of cancer, along with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, depression and anxiety. It also builds health—like strong bones, muscles, joints and aerobic fitness; and it helps control weight, promotes healthy body composition, and fosters feelings of well-being and cognitive function.

Yet, we’ve allowed our society to morph into such a sedentary state of normalcy that for the average person, being physically active on a daily basis takes seemingly gargantuan effort. We’re bound to our desks and computers at work; PE and recess aren’t prioritized in too many schools; sidewalks and open space parks aren’t accessible for many; and the lure of handheld and other screens for information and entertainment seems to have entrapped us.

Certainly, our individual lifestyles are a personal choice and call for personal responsibility. But when government figures reveal that only 26 percent of men, 19 percent of women, and 20 percent of adolescents meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for good health, it tells us something much bigger is amiss.

The fact is, America’s “physical inactivity crisis” has gotten way out of hand.

We’re at the point where we need a sweeping culture change that supports people in their efforts to be physically active. And it requires action from every sector—from large and small businesses within all industries, from schools and educators, from local communities and city planners, from faith-based organizations, from health care providers and payers, from the media, from families, parents and the experts who advise them, and from each and every one of us. But importantly, it requires a commitment from Congress and the administration to implement policies and legislation that support people in their efforts to live physically active, healthy lifestyles.

Luckily, there are leaders on Capitol Hill who agree. Earlier this month, Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators grill safety regulator over self-driving cars Tensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' Overnight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul MORE (R-S.D.), Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott Murphy2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections Dem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens Lawmakers spar over upcoming Sondland testimony MORE (D-Conn.) and Reps. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindCongressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny Alcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline MORE (D-Wis.) and Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyAlcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline Democrats ramp up oversight efforts over 'opportunity zone' incentive Genetic counselors save health care dollars when involved in the testing process MORE (R-Pa.) introduced the Personal Health Investment Today Act (PHIT) (S.680, H.R.1679) into the 116thCongress.        

PHIT is a common ground bill that would support Americans in their efforts to be physically active by letting them use their pre-tax Health Savings (HSA) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) to pay for qualified fitness expenses—things like youth sports fees, exercise equipment, and health club membership, among other exercise costs. Families would be able to access $2,000 pre-tax for fitness activities, and individuals up to $1,000—essentially saving them 20 to 30 percent on their exercise expenses.    

The fitness industry and others who recognize the importance of physical activity to our nation’s health and well-being—including the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA)—have been urging Congress to pass this legislation for more than a dozen years.       

Be certain that every small step that removes a barrier to healthy living, every effort that advances a national culture that embraces and celebrates physical activity, every piece of legislation that works for the American people in their efforts to lead healthier, more physically active lives is a success.     

It’s the incremental wins that will get us to where we need to be.        

PHIT gives Congress—and each one of us—an opportunity to win that next positive step.        

Our younger generations really do need a change in the way America lives. Members of Congress: I urge you to pass PHIT this time around. You have the power to make a difference.

Helen Durkin, JD, is executive vice president of public Policy at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and president of National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA). March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Visit the Colorectal Cancer Alliance for more information.