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Cancer in Young People Is Rising. Here’s What You Need to Know

February 15, 2024

Since 1990, cancer researchers have been tracking a disturbing trend: The rate of cancer in people under 50 is rising.

In 2019, new cancer diagnoses were up 79%. Cancer deaths were up about 28%.

Early onset breast and colon cancer are the most common of these “early onset” cancers. Many other types, from esophagus to prostate and more, are also rising. And the problem isn’t unique to Americans.

“This is a worldwide trend, not just in the U.S.,” says Andrew Salner, MD, medical director of the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at Hartford Hospital.

What’s behind the increase — and what, if anything, can you do about it?

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What causes early onset cancer?

For most of us, early onset cancer doesn’t seem to be written in our genes like our eye or hair color. Instead, it’s probably sparked by everything that happens around us (and that we do) as we go about our lives.

“Researchers have not detected cancer-inherited gene syndromes as the primary cause of early onset cancer,” says Dr. Salner. “Scientists suspect that the cause is more likely lifestyle and external factors.”

Those factors include:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Lack of exercise
  • Eating highly processed foods
  • Possibly, environmental exposures like certain chemicals

> Related: 4 Most Common Cancers in Young People

7 ways to reduce your risk of cancer

When we hear the same advice many times over, we sometimes tune out how important it is. But when it comes to our health, the classics are crucial.

To prevent cancer:

  1. Exercise regularly: For example, take a brisk 30-minute walk at least five days a week
  2. Maintain close to ideal body weight
  3. Eat five helpings of vegetables and fruit daily
  4. Limit highly processed foods and red meat
  5. Limit alcohol
  6. Avoid tobacco products
  7. Follow screening guidelines
    1. For everyone, colorectal cancer screening with colonoscopy starting at 45
    2. For women, annual mammography starting at 40, or earlier if you have a family history of breast cancer
    3. For men with a family history of prostate cancer, or who have African American or West Indian heritage, prostate cancer screening starting at age 40 to 45

And of course, pay attention to any changes in your body, from obvious to not-so-obvious.

“If you develop persistent lumps or abnormal symptoms, see your primary care provider,” says Dr. Salner.

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What happens if I’m diagnosed with cancer under age 50?

Cancer teams have plenty of experience caring for older Americans, because almost nine out of 10 cancer diagnoses are in people over 50.

However, if you’re younger than 50, you’ll want a team that also understands your age bracket — the career pressures, the desire or demands of having young kids, and more.

“Caring for younger patients poses an additional set of challenges, which the oncology community needs to address,” says Dr. Salner.

When you’re choosing your care team, ask about:

  • Services for fertility preservation or alternatives
  • Help with requesting disability from work and associated financial hardships
  • Support for dealing with changes in appearance or abilities due to major surgery or other treatments
  • Resources to ease the psychosocial burden of cancer, including for family members and any children

While cancer rates may be rising in people under 50, so are the treatment options — and the types of support available to you and your family. The right team can make all the difference.