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Global Epidemic of Cancer for People Under 50

Cancer is not just a disease plaguing older adults today. Some types of cancer, such as colorectal, bile duct, breast, endometrium, gall bladder, kidney, pancreas, stomach, and thyroid cancer, are appearing in younger adults at increasing rates each year. 

Among people under 50, the diagnosis of colorectal cancer is rising. The elevated cancer epidemic among young adults worldwide has elevated concerns among researchers, providers, and public health experts. 

Increasing Cancer Rates Among People Under 50 

A review of cancer data from 44 nations, recently published in Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, reveals that incidences of colorectal and other types of cancer are growing at significant rates. Moreover, these rising rates are occurring in middle- and high-income countries. 

Early-onset cancer, which occurs before 50, is becoming more frequent. The data in the review point to a cohort effect where the risk for early-onset cancer increases for each successive generation. For example, people born in the 1990s are generally at greater risk than individuals born in the previous decade. 

Increases in certain cancers have been documented in North America and elsewhere. The average annual increase for colorectal cancer in Australia, Canada, France, Japan, and the U.S. is about 2%. It climbs about 3% annually in the UK and approximately 5% annually in Ecuador and Korea. 

What Is Causing the Uptick? 

One unintended outcome of more sensitive cancer screenings is an increase in documented cases. However, this phenomenon is only part of the reason for upticks. It is also prudent to consider conditions like obesity that strain a person’s overall health, especially since more people become obese early in life than in previous years. 

Besides obesity, other risk factors like smoking, diabetes, poor sleep, alcohol abuse, and unhealthy diets often work together and have strong links to cancer risks. 

Cancer of the Digestive System Is Becoming More Prevalent 

The authors of the review point out that 8 out of the 14 cancers they examined affect the digestive tract. This connection suggests that bacteria in the gut and diet can play a significant role in cancer rates. 

In recent years, there has been a surge in early-onset colorectal cancer, the third leading cause of cancer-related death among women and men. The disease often develops in the left colon and is usually detected at an advanced stage. Public health experts estimate that 10.5% of new colorectal cancer diagnoses occur among patients under 50. 

Implications for Screenings, Cancer Awareness, and Future Research 

Putting off essential cancer screenings can delay a life-saving diagnosis. Although cancer is serious to people of all ages, tumors in young people tend to be more aggressive in their growth. In some cases, when cancer is detected, it is at an advanced stage, reducing a patient’s chances for survival. 

Many cancers in young adults tend to go undetected because of age-related screening recommendations, some of which are at 50 years of age. This is why public health entities are rethinking age-related screening recommendations for specific types of cancers, especially colorectal. 

For instance, the US Preventive Services Task Force has lowered its recommended age for initial colonoscopy screenings from 50 to 45. 

Given the increases in cancer cases among younger adults, lowering recommendations for initial testing ages may reduce the severity of some cancers when they are detected. This has already been the case for colorectal cancer as a whole. 

More research is necessary to gain a better understanding of the generational effects of cancer exposure. Additional studies can shed more light on changes in lifestyle, diet, environmental exposures, and obesity as they occur in early life. The onset of cancer in people under 50 might be one of many signs of chronic conditions among adolescents and younger adults. 

There is also a call for greater awareness among the general public of the risk factors contributing to cancer, especially among people under 50. Encouraging individuals of all ages to adopt healthy behaviors in early life can reduce the likelihood of diabetes and other conditions significantly linked to cancer. 

Early testing for colorectal and other cancers is also essential to detect cancer early and increase survival rates. Many patients with average colon cancer risk can undergo a colonoscopy, a traditional exam that looks at the colon and rectum. Some tests detect cancer in a stool sample. If you get abnormal results from a stool sample test, make sure to follow it up with a colonoscopy. 

No matter your age, a doctor can advise you on the most appropriate test for colorectal cancer. Also, check with your insurance provider about coverage for the cost of your screening. 

Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members. 








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