After making significant progress in the fight against cancer over the past few decades, younger Americans, particularly women, are becoming more vulnerable.
Cancers among people younger than age 50 have risen, with the largest increases among those age 30 to 39, according to a recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The increases in early-onset cancers (those diagnosed before age 50) were particularly notable with gastrointestinal, endocrine and breast cancers. From 2010 to 2019, the rate of early-onset cancers rose by nearly 1 percent. But among the 30-39 age group, the increase was about 19 percent.
It’s an alarming trend, considering that cancer remains the second-leading cause of death in the U.S.
Digging further into the study shows that the increases are being driven by cancers in younger women and people who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Natives, Asians and Hispanics. Overall, rates were stable among white people and decreased for Black people.
There’s still much to learn about the specific drivers of this trend. It’s likely that there are several factors at play, including rising obesity rates and lifestyle habits, including smoking; drinking alcohol; lack of exercise and sleeping poorly. There may also be environmental factors, including exposure to carcinogenic chemicals and pollutants.
Another contributing factor is that cancer screenings are not regularly recommended for younger adults. And some of the rising cancers – bile duct and appendix, for example – do not have screening tests available for early prevention.
Are We Losing Ground Against Cancer?
This is a worrying trend considering the progress we’ve made. The risk of dying from cancer hit its peak in 1991, but has fallen 32 percent since, thanks to better treatments and prevention efforts.
That risk might be growing for younger people has been known for a few years, particularly with colon cancer. That point was driven home in 2020 when actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at the age of 43. Even before then, a study led by American Cancer Society researchers showed that colon cancer rates among people under 55 had doubled over the previous 20 years.
There’s still more research that needs to be done. But this suggests we need to redouble our education efforts to help younger people understand the health risks that accompany obesity, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. They are bombarded daily with marketing and advertising pushing fast food, sweets and products designed to keep us from even needing to get off the couch.
Strategies To Lower Cancer Risk
Stop using tobacco. This includes chewing tobacco.
Eat healthy food. Focus on fruits, vegetables and foods high in fiber.
Avoid processed foods. Processed meats can increase your risk for some cancers.
Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity has been linked to more than a dozen cancers.
Drink alcohol in moderation. Excess alcohol consumption can increase your risk for colon cancer and breast cancer, among others.
Get off the couch. Aim for 30 minutes of daily exercise.
Don’t Skip Checkups. Doing self-exams and having regular exams by your doctor can help catch cancers early when they are more likely to be treated successfully.
Get regular sleep. Disrupting your biological clock can make you more vulnerable to breast cancer and colon cancer, among others.
Screening Is Key
The trend also serves as a strong reminder about the importance of following cancer screening guidelines. And eventually it may prompt researchers to consider revising them to help with earlier detection in younger people.
A few general screening guidelines to keep in mind (people with higher risk may need to start testing earlier):
Cervical cancer. Women should get an HPV test every five years, starting at age 25.
Breast cancer. Women ages 40 to 44 should consider annual mammograms. From age 45 to 54, women should get mammograms annually. Women 55 and older can switch to mammograms every two years or continue getting yearly screening.
Colon cancer. Starting at age 45, people with average risk should begin testing, with a colonoscopy or other approved option.
Prostate cancer. Starting at age 50, men with average risk should talk with their physician about the risks and potential benefits of screening.
Lung cancer. If you are 50 or older, talk with your doctor about your smoking history and whether you should begin annual screening.
Source: Orlando Health, www.orlandohealth.com