Management of Colorectal Carcinoma in Children and Young Adults

Goldberg, John MD*; Furman, Wayne L. MD

Journal of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology:
doi: 10.1097/MPH.0b013e31824e38c1

Colorectal Carcinoma (CRC) is rare in patients less than 20 years of age. Although presenting symptoms are similar to adults, this diagnosis is rarely considered in the initial differential diagnosis of young patients. We will review what is published about the incidence, epidemiology, and clinical presentation of CRC in children, adolescents and young adults. Because of its rarity in this age group, few pediatric oncologists will have experience with CRC, and clinical trials will rarely be available. The treatment of CRC in adults is evolving rapidly and consultation with medical oncologists experience in treating adults with CRC is essential to develop the best treatment plan for a young patient diagnosed with CRC.

Author Information

*University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, FL

Department of Oncology, St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, TN

Supported by grants CA23099 and by the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC).

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Reprints: Wayne L. Furman, MD, Department of Oncology, St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, TN 38105 (e-mail:

Received January 24, 2012

Accepted February 1, 2012

Article Outline
Back to Top | Article Outline


Although colorectal carcinoma (CRC) is the third most common cancer in adults,1 it is exceptionally rare in children, adolescents, and young adults, with an incidence of only about 1 per million persons below 20 years of age (Fig. 1).2 Because of the extreme rarity of the tumor in this age group, it may be difficult to develop a treatment plan when CRC is diagnosed. Pediatric case series, which are limited by relatively small numbers of patients and by referral bias, cannot serve as the basis of definitive treatment recommendations.3,4 Here we will briefly review what is known about the incidence, epidemiology, and clinical presentation of CRC in children, adolescents, and young adults and summarize the clinical options described in the peer-reviewed literature to provide a basis for management decisions by pediatric oncologists.

Back to Top | Article Outline


In 2010, approximately 142,000 patients in the United States were diagnosed with CRC and approximately 51,000 died of CRC.1 However, fewer than 100 cases are diagnosed each year in children, adolescents, and young adults (Fig. 1).4 CRC accounts for 2.1% of malignancies in the 15- to 29-year-old age group5 and has been reported in children as young as 9 months.2

In adults, CRC is more common in developed countries. Although the cause of this disparity is not well understood, dietary differences have been suggested as a major factor. Other factors reported to be associated with an increased incidence of CRC in adults include obesity,6 a high-calorie diet, high consumption and/or overcooking of red meat, excess alcohol consumption, sedentary lifestyle, and cigarette smoking.7 However, the disparate incidence in developed and undeveloped countries is more likely to reflect complex interactions among multiple factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and environment, as well as diet.2 Most of these factors are unlikely to exert a major effect in children. Although case series offer clues about the biological nature of CRC in patients under 20 years of age,3,8 definitive conclusions cannot be drawn from the small numbers of patients studied.

In adults, most cases of CRC occur sporadically, although approximately 20% to 30% have a possible genetic cause.9 Only about 5% of patients have a well-defined inherited genetic syndrome. The most common of these (3% to 5% of all patients) is hereditary nonpolyposis CRC or Lynch syndrome; the second most common (~1%) is familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Gardner syndrome. The remainder are syndromes involving hamartomatous polyps, such as Peutz-Jeghers syndrome and familial juvenile polyposis.4 The incidence of these well-defined genetic syndromes in children with CRC cannot be clearly determined from available pediatric series.3,4,10–20 Because nearly every patient with FAP will eventually develop CRC if left untreated, the standard of care is prophylactic colectomy. However, the optimal timing of colectomy in children with FAP is unknown.13,21 Colonic polyps appear at a median age of 16 years22 but have been seen in children as young as 5 years.23 The majority of children with FAP who developed CRC had a severe polyposis phenotype (more than 1000 colonic polyps).12 CRC arises from the mucosal surface of the bowel; in adults, it usually arises from preexisting adenomas that are thought to progress to invasive carcinoma in a stepwise manner over a decade or more.5,24 The applicability of this model to children with CRC is unknown. There are several factors that argue for a different pathogenesis in children: (1) CRC has been seen in children as young as 9 months; (2) premalignant adenomas are rarely seen in proximity to sporadic CRC in children; and (3) CRC in children tends to be of mucinous histology.2,4

Back to Top | Article Outline


Most large series suggest that children tend to present with late-stage disease and mucinous histology and that they have a relatively poor outcome.3,4,10–12,14–20,25 However, a recent review of data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program suggests that these findings may reflect reporting bias.5 Early signs of CRC are difficult to distinguish from common causes of abdominal complaints. Anemia, vague abdominal pain, bleeding, weight loss, and change in bowel habits have been reported as presenting complaints for children with colon cancer.2–4 In a recent review of 77 children with CRC who presented to St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, patients had experienced symptoms for a median of 3 months and most were anemic.3 All of the presenting complaints are so common in pediatric care that the possible diagnosis of CRC may be overlooked, whereas in an older adult the same complaints would prompt colonoscopy; this factor may be partially responsible for data suggesting later-stage disease at diagnosis in children. As in most other series (summarized in Saab and Furman4), 66 of 77 patients (86%) at St Jude presented with advanced-stage disease, 48 (62%) had mucinous histology, 33 (43%) had >10% signet-ring cells, and the 10-year event-free survival estimate overall was only 17.7%±5.1%.3 All of these parameters are “worse” than those reported in adults with CRC.1,26 However, while vigilance for pediatric CRC remains important, adult-type screening exams (eg, colonoscopy, routine fecal occult blood testing, and sigmoidoscopy) are not likely to be cost-effective and will generally identify many false positives in the absence of known risk factors.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Histopathologic examination of tissue is required for diagnosis. The procedure used to obtain tissue is best determined in consultation with surgical colleagues and depends on the patient’s clinical situation. Decisions about how tissue is to be obtained should take into account that surgery is the most important component of effective therapy. Complete evaluation of a patient with suspected CRC should include a chest x-ray, CT of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis, and a bone scan. Barium enema is sometimes used to help identify areas of concern before the diagnosis is made. At this point, the utility of fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET) scans is unclear. This method appears to be less useful in detecting lesions of mucinous histology.27 Because mucinous lesions appear to predominate in children, FDG-PET scans may be less helpful in these patients. Other tests to consider include a total colonoscopy to identify other lesions or polyps, complete blood count, blood chemistry panel with liver enzymes, and typically a carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) assay. Although this antigen is useful in adults28 to monitor disease and predict recurrence or progression, it is less likely to be useful in most pediatric cases. In a study by Rao et al,29 CEA levels in 9 of 23 pediatric patients did not correspond with either residual disease or disease progression. In a follow-up study, the same group concluded that CEA is not an effective marker for monitoring most children with CRC.30

Staging guidelines for adult patients should be applied to children with CRC. Currently the American Joint Commission on Cancer guidelines ( provide the most widely used staging system.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Only 1 small prospective clinical trial has been reported for CRC in pediatric patients,25 and therefore treatment recommendations must be adapted from experience in adults. Surgery is the mainstay of treatment, and patients whose tumors cannot be completely surgically resected are rarely cured. Resection should follow guidelines established in adults. The basic surgical principles are removal of the major vascular pedicle supplying the tumor along with its lymphatics, and en bloc resection of any organs or structures attached to the tumor. At least a 5 cm margin of normal bowel should be obtained on either side of the tumor to minimize the possibility of an anastomotic recurrence.32 Adequate lymph node resection is imperative, as some patients with stage III tumors can be cured by surgery alone. In particular, primary and secondary draining lymph node echelons should be removed. The number of lymph nodes examined by the pathologist is prognostic of survival,33 and therefore a minimum of 12 negative lymph nodes should be examined to define node-negative disease.34 The surgeon must also remember that the pattern of spread of mucinous CRC may be intraperitoneal. Therefore, extensive exploration of the peritoneal surface, including that overlying Gerota fascia and the diaphragm, should be undertaken during laparotomy. All peritoneal nodules should be removed if feasible. If the diagnosis was not made preoperatively and CRC is found in a patient being urgently explored for an acute abdomen, the surgeon should convert the procedure to a standard colon cancer resection with excision of draining lymphatics, which may necessitate closing the original wound (eg, an appendectomy incision) and using a midline approach. Cases of localized recurrence may benefit from reexcision. Hyperthermic perfusion of the peritoneal cavity after colon resection and peritonectomy has been applied in only a few cases, and there are insufficient data to recommend this approach for all patients.

Unfortunately for many children, adolescents, and young adults, CRC is rarely considered in the initial differential diagnosis, and therefore the initial surgical approach is often inadequate. In those cases, reexploration of the abdomen, with the goals of bowel resection with adequate margins and adequate lymph node sampling, should be performed at a center experienced in this type of surgery.

Because of the rarity of CRC in children, few pediatric oncologists will have any substantial experience with this disease. Consultation with medical oncologists experienced in evaluating adults with CRC is essential. The treatment for children should be adapted from current adult treatment recommendations. For stage II disease, in general the benefit of adjuvant chemotherapy is still being studied. Currently, adjuvant chemotherapy does not appear to improve survival by more than 5%.34–36 Careful observation is a reasonable recommendation for most adults who have no evidence of disease after resection; however, adjuvant therapy may be recommended for those with any poor prognostic features, such as poorly differentiated histology, perforation, T4 lesion, peritumoral lymphovascular involvement, or inadequate lymph node sampling.34,35

As noted above, most pediatric patients with CRC present with 1 or more of the poor prognostic features. For example, in the largest available pediatric series, the 8 children with stage II disease had only a 37.5%±15% 10-year event-free survival estimate,3 although 5-year disease-free survival is 60% to 80+% in most adult studies.35 The best option for children with CRC is participation in a clinical trial, although this opportunity is rarely available for pediatric patients with CRC. The relative prevalence of 1 or more negative prognostic factors at diagnosis and young age by definition suggest that adjuvant chemotherapy be strongly considered (and carefully discussed by the oncologist with the family) for many children, adolescents, and young adults with stage II disease. Chemotherapy has demonstrated a clear survival benefit for adults with stage III or IV disease,34,37 and children should be treated in a similar fashion. Although the FOLFOX regimen38,39 or one of its derivatives, such as modified FOLFOX-6,40 is the current regimen of choice,37 chemotherapy for advanced-stage disease is under active investigation and changing rapidly. Addition of the targeted agents bevacizumab,41,42 cetuximab,43 and panitumumab44–46 to standard chemotherapy regimens has shown benefit in selected patient groups. There is accumulating evidence that some patients who present with stage IV disease can be cured, if complete surgical resection can eventually be attained.47 In considering options for a pediatric patient with advanced-stage disease, one should carefully review the current medical literature and consult with an adult oncologist experienced in treating CRC before recommending a specific regimen.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Careful observation is recommended for the child with sporadic CRC who completes all planned treatment. However, few data are available to predict the risk of recurrence in such children or the risk of second malignancies later in life. Because CRC is both rare in children and extremely difficult to cure, the number of survivors is small. Although to date no large-scale randomized trials have documented the efficacy of a standard postoperative monitoring program in adults, young patients have a long period of latency for relapse and should undergo posttreatment screening with regular colonoscopy and radiologic evaluations at least as frequently as recommended for adults.34,48 Screening with CEA at reasonable intervals could be considered for children who had high CEA levels at presentation. Although the 5-year survival estimate for early-stage colon cancer is excellent at about 90%, patients with metastatic disease have less than a 10% likelihood of 5-year survival. It is not clear how long relapse surveillance should be continued for patients who survive metastatic pediatric CRC. The child should be followed in a clinic specializing in the long-term sequelae of treatment for childhood cancer, regardless of other follow-up plans.

Back to Top | Article Outline


CRC in children, adolescents, and young adults is rare. Although presenting symptoms are similar to those in adults, CRC is often not considered in the initial evaluation of a young patient. Because of its rarity in children, few pediatric oncologists have any substantial experience with CRC, and clinical trials are rarely available. The majority of reported cases present with advanced-stage disease and have mucinous or signet-ring cell carcinomas,4 whereas only 5% to 15% of adults present with these histologic subtypes.49 Treatment of young patients should be adapted from adult guidelines. Surgery is the mainstay of treatment, and patients who cannot be rendered surgically free of disease are rarely cured. The treatment of CRC in adults is evolving rapidly,50 and consultation with medical oncologists experienced in treating adults with CRC is essential.

Back to Top | Article Outline

The authors thank Sharon Naron for editorial assistance.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1. Cancer Facts and Figures 2010. 2011 Atlanta, GA American Cancer Society
2. Pappo AS, Rodriguez-Galindo C, Furman WLPizzo PA, Poplack DG. Management of infrequent cancers of childhood. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. Vol 6th. 2011 Philadelphia, PA Lippincott Williams & Wilkins:1098–1123
3. Hill DA, Furman WL, Billups CA, et al. Colorectal carcinoma in childhood and adolescence: a clinicopathologic review. J Clin Oncol. 2007;25:5808–5814
4. Saab R, Furman WL. Epidemiology and management options for colorectal cancer in children. Paediatr Drugs. 2008;10:177–192
5. Spunt S, Furman WL, La Quaglia MP, et al.Bleyer A, O’Leary M, Ries L Colon and rectal cancer. Cancer Epidemiology in Older Adolescents and Young Adults 15 to 29 Years of Age, Including SEER Incidence and Survival: 1975–2000. NIH Pub. No. 06-5767. 2006 Bethesda, MD National Cancer Institute:123–133
6. Donohoe CL, Pidgeon GP, Lysaght J, et al. Obesity and gastrointestinal cancer. Br J Surg. 2010;97:628–642
7. Libutti SK, Saltz LB, Rustgi AK, et al.DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA Cancer of the colon. Cancer Principles & Practice of Oncology. Vol 7th. 2005 Philadelphia, PA Lippincott Williams & Wilkins:1061–1109
8. Datta RV, Laquaglia MP, Paty PB. Genetic and phenotypic correlates of colorectal cancer in young patients. N Engl J Med. 2000;342:137–138
9. Grady WM. Genetic testing for high-risk colon cancer patients. Gastroenterology. 2003;124:1574–1594
10. Andersson A, Bergdahl L. Carcinoma of the colon in children: a report of six new cases and a review of the literature. J Pediatr Surg. 1976;11:967–971
11. Chantada GL, Perelli VB, Lombardi MG, et al. Colorectal carcinoma in children, adolescents, and young adults. J Pediatr Hematol Oncol. 2005;27:39–41
12. Durno C, Aronson M, Bapat B, et al. Family history and molecular features of children, adolescents, and young adults with colorectal carcinoma. Gut. 2005;54:1146–1150
13. Durno CA, Gallinger S. Genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer: new pieces in the pediatric puzzle. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2006;43:5–15
14. Ferrari A, Rognone A, Casanova M, et al. Colorectal carcinoma in children and adolescents: the experience of the Istituto Nazionale Tumori of Milan, Italy. Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2008;50:588–593
15. Karnak I, Ciftci AO, Senocak ME, et al. Colorectal carcinoma in children. J Pediatr Surg. 1999;34:1499–1504
16. Laquaglia MP, Heller G, Filippa DA, et al. Prognostic factors and outcome in patients 21 years and under with colorectal carcinoma. J Pediatr Surg. 1992;27:1085–1089
17. Middelkamp JN, Haffner H. Carcinoma of the colon in children. Pediatrics. 1963;32:558–571
18. Radhakrishnan CN, Bruce J. Colorectal cancers in children without any predisposing factors. A report of eight cases and review of the literature. Eur J Pediatr Surg. 2003;13:66–68
19. Sharma AK, Gupta CR. Colorectal cancer in children: case report and review of literature. Trop Gastroenterol. 2001;22:36–39
20. Taguchi T, Suita S, Hirata Y, et al. Carcinoma of the colon in children: a case report and review of 41 Japanese cases. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 1991;12:394–399
21. Alkhouri N, Franciosi JP, Mamula P. Familial adenomatous polyposis in children and adolescents. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2010;51:727–732
22. Corredor J, Wambach J, Barnard J. Gastrointestinal polyps in children: advances in molecular genetics, diagnosis, and management. J Pediatr. 2001;138:621–628
23. Distante S, Nasioulas S, Somers GR, et al. Familial adenomatous polyposis in a 5 year old child: a clinical, pathological, and molecular genetic study. J Med Genet. 1996;33:157–160
24. Markowitz SD, Bertagnolli MM. Molecular origins of cancer: molecular basis of colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med. 2009;361:2449–2460
25. Pratt CB, Rao BN, Merchant TE, et al. Treatment of colorectal carcinoma in adolescents and young adults with surgery, 5-fluorouracil/leucovorin/interferon-alpha 2a and radiation therapy. Med Pediatr Oncol. 1999;32:459–460
26. Consorti F, Lorenzotti A, Midiri G, et al. Prognostic significance of mucinous carcinoma of colon and rectum: a prospective case-control study. J Surg Oncol. 2000;73:70–74
27. Berger KL, Nicholson SA, Dehdashti F, et al. FDG PET evaluation of mucinous neoplasms: correlation of FDG uptake with histopathologic features. Am J Roentgenol. 2000;174:1005–1008
28. Goldstein MJ, Mitchell EP. Carcinoembryonic antigen in the staging and follow-up of patients with colorectal cancer. Cancer Invest. 2005;23:338–351
29. Rao BN, Pratt CB, Fleming ID, et al. Colon carcinoma in children and adolescents. A review of 30 cases. Cancer. 1985;55:1322–1326
30. Angel CA, Pratt CB, Rao BN, et al. Carcinoembryonic antigen and carbohydrate 19-9 antigen as markers for colorectal carcinoma in children and adolescents. Cancer. 1992;69:1487–1491
31. Edge SB, Byrd DR, Compton CC, et al. AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. Vol 7th. 2010 Springer American Joint Committee on Cancer
32. Rodriguez-Bigas MA, Hoff PM, Crane CHKuff DW, Bast RC Jr, Hait WN, et al. Carcinoma of the colon and rectum. Cancer Medicine 7. 2006 London BC Decker Inc.:1369–1391
33. Gunderson LL, Jessup JM, Sargent DJ, et al. Revised TN categorization for colon cancer based on national survival outcomes data. J Clin Oncol. 2010;28:264–271
34. Cited with permission from the NCCN Clinical Practice guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines(r))[Colon Cancer](version 3.2012) (c) 2012 National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Inc. Available at: Accessed [February 28, 2012]. To view the most recent and complete version of the NCCN Guidelines(r), go on-line to
35. Benson AB III, Schrag D, Somerfield MR, et al. American Society of Clinical Oncology recommendations on adjuvant chemotherapy for stage II colon cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2004;22:3408–3419
36. Figueredo A, Charette ML, Maroun J, et al. Adjuvant therapy for stage II colon cancer: a systematic review from the Cancer Care Ontario Program in evidence-based care’s gastrointestinal cancer disease site group. J Clin Oncol. 2004;22:3395–3407
37. Saltz LB. Adjuvant therapy for colon cancer. Surg Oncol Clin N Am. 2010;19:819–827
38. Andre T, Boni C, Mounedji-Boudiaf L, et al. Oxaliplatin, fluorouracil, and leucovorin as adjuvant treatment for colon cancer. N Engl J Med. 2004;350:2343–2351
39. Andre T, Boni C, Navarro M, et al. Improved overall survival with oxaliplatin, fluorouracil, and leucovorin as adjuvant treatment in stage II or III colon cancer in the MOSAIC trial. J Clin Oncol. 2009;27:3109–3116
40. Tournigand C, Andre T, Achille E, et al. FOLFIRI followed by FOLFOX6 or the reverse sequence in advanced colorectal cancer: a randomized GERCOR study. J Clin Oncol. 2004;22:229–237
41. Hurwitz H, Fehrenbacher L, Novotny W, et al. Bevacizumab plus irinotecan, fluorouracil, and leucovorin for metastatic colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med. 2004;350:2335–2342
42. Hurwitz HI, Yi J, Ince W, et al. The clinical benefit of bevacizumab in metastatic colorectal cancer is independent of K-ras mutation status: analysis of a phase III study of bevacizumab with chemotherapy in previously untreated metastatic colorectal cancer. Oncologist. 2009;14:22–28
43. Cunningham D, Humblet Y, Siena S, et al. Cetuximab monotherapy and cetuximab plus irinotecan in irinotecan-refractory metastatic colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med. 2004;351:337–345
44. Addeo R, Caraglia M, Cerbone D, et al. Panitumumab: a new frontier of target therapy for the treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer. Expert Rev Anticancer Ther. 2010;10:499–505
45. Giusti RM, Shastri KA, Cohen MH, et al. Drug approval summary: panitumumab (Vectibix). Oncologist. 2007;12:577–583
46. Van CE, Peeters M, Siena S, et al. Open-label phase III trial of panitumumab plus best supportive care compared with best supportive care alone in patients with chemotherapy-refractory metastatic colorectal cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2007;25:1658–1664
47. VanderMeer TJ, Callery MP, Meyers WC. The approach to the patient with single and multiple liver metastases, pulmonary metastases, and intra-abdominal metastases from colorectal carcinoma. Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 1997;11:759–777
48. Desch CE, Benson AB III, Somerfield MR, et al. Colorectal cancer surveillance: 2005 update of an American Society of Clinical Oncology practice guideline. J Clin Oncol. 2005;23:8512–8519
49. Negri FV, Wotherspoon A, Cunningham D, et al. Mucinous histology predicts for reduced fluorouracil responsiveness and survival in advanced colorectal cancer. Ann Oncol. 2005;16:1305–1310
50. Cunningham D, Atkin W, Lenz HJ, et al. Colorectal cancer. Lancet. 2010;375:1030–1047

colorectal carcinoma; children; young adults; management guidelines

© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.