25 January, 2024

Cancer Rates Increasing in Young People

We’ve always heard that cancer generally strikes later in life – nearly 60% of cancer patients in the United States are 65 or older.1 So, if you’re younger than 50, being diagnosed with cancer is not something you really have to worry about, right? Not true, according to a recent study which showed that cancer diagnosis rates are actually going up in people younger than 50, the typical cut-off for when cancer is considered “early-onset.”

The government-funded study of 17 National Cancer Institute registries, published in the journal JAMA Network Open,2 looked at more than 500,000 cases of early-onset cancer, between the years 2010 and 2019. The study found that the rate of early-onset cancers rose by almost 18% within this timeframe, while cancer declined slightly in older adults.

Those cancers found to have the highest numbers of early-onset cases diagnosed in 2019 were breast, which rose more than 17%, and colorectal cancer, which spiked nearly 45%. Large increases were also observed in early-onset cases of the appendix, the bile duct, and uterus.

Dr. Sean Burke, a fellowship-trained body radiologist with specialization in abdominal and oncologic imaging, at Arizona Diagnostic Radiology, has personally seen these increases.

“In particular,” Dr. Burke says, “colon and rectal cancers are sadly becoming more common among the younger population, even over the last couple of years.”

Why is this happening?

At this point, researchers aren’t entirely sure.

Authors of a second study with similar findings, published in Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology,3 partially attribute the upswing to more sensitive screening tests and early detection. They note, however, that there are more causes which warrant further investigation.

Many researchers hypothesize that several environmental and lifestyle changes that have occurred since the mid-20th century have increased exposure to risk factors in early life. The main suspect among these is obesity, which has climbed steadily in the United States since the 1960’s4 and has become more common in childhood and adolescence. Many of the cancers rising in younger people have been tied to obesity, including breast and uterine cancers, as well as colorectal cancer and others impacting the gastrointestinal tract.

Other related factors may be tied to more sedentary lifestyles, decline in physical activity, increased alcohol consumption, and more.

Dr. Burke adds that for all of these reasons, “it’s important to emphasize things like seeing your primary care physician, getting your colonoscopy done as soon as it is recommended, and just being aware and paying attention to your body. Be more mindful to anything out of the ordinary, any new symptoms that are developing.”

At this time, incidence rates in early-onset cancers don’t seem to be changing. Researchers point out that it’s especially important to remember that younger people who are exposed to these higher risk factors will likely continue to suffer higher rates of cancer as they get older.4

“We encourage people to seek care sooner rather than later,” Dr. Burke says. “Every little bit of time makes a big difference.”

If you have questions or concerns about your health or risk factors, please speak to your primary care physician.



  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1500929/

  2. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2808381

  3. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41571-022-00672-8

  4. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity-adult-17-18/obesity-adult.htm

  5. https://thehill.com/curing-cancer/4041032-cancer-rates-are-climbing-among-young-people-its-not-clear-why/

25 January, 2024

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