An unsettling new trend is emerging that has doctors and researchers alarmed – cancer rates are rising at an unprecedented rate among young adults under the age of 50. While overall cancer death rates continue to decline, new cases are projected to hit a record high in 2024. At particular risk are adults in their 20s and 30s, who are being diagnosed with colorectal, pancreatic, and breast cancers at increasingly younger ages.
Colorectal Cancer Striking Young Men at High Rates
Once considered rare for those under age 50, colorectal cancer rates have been climbing steadily among younger adults, especially men. According to a major new report from the American Cancer Society released this week, colorectal cancer deaths among those aged 20-49 rose almost 20% from 2012-2019.
Among men in their early 40s, colon cancer death rates jumped 17% in just seven years – making it the #1 cancer killer in men under 50. Rates also rose for women in their late 30s and early 40s, but at a slower pace than men. Doctors say many cases are being diagnosed at later stages when survival is less likely.
While reasons for the spike remain unclear, “Unhealthy lifestyle trends, like poor diet, excess weight, smoking, and lack of physical activity seem to be playing a role,” says Dr. Ann Chen of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Sharp Increases in Other Cancers Among Young People
Unfortunately colorectal cancer is not the only one on the rise. Pancreatic cancer rates jumped almost 20% among adults aged 35-44. And breast cancer cases rose over 10% for women under 40, continuing an earlier trend. Cervical cancer is also killing more young women in their 20s and 30s.
Doctors say that normally cancer stems from genetic mutations that accumulate over time, taking decades to develop. But these aggressive cases cropping up early in life suggest other forces are driving the surge.
New American Cancer Society Predictions for 2024
The American Cancer Society (ACS) just released their annual facts and figures report, giving predictions for cancer cases and deaths expected in the United States in 2024. The toll is enormous – over 2 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed this year, up almost 15% from 2019 levels.
While the overall cancer death rate is projected to decline by almost 2% from its peak of 215 deaths per 100,000 people in 1991 to 152 deaths per 100k in 2024, the ACS says progress has stagnated the last few years for some common sites like breast and colorectal. They warn the U.S. is not on track to meet national goals to reduce cancer mortality.
Young People Face Unexpected Risks
With cancer mainly thought of as a disease of older adults, these rising rates among young people under 50 are all the more disturbing. “As a cancer specialist who treats mostly younger patients, I have seen first-hand the heartbreak of explaining an advanced cancer diagnosis to patients early in life,” says Dr. Benjamin Lawrence of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Doctors warn that while young adults often feel healthy and invincible, they should not ignore symptoms like persistent digestive issues, pain, unusual bleeding, lumps, excessive fatigue, or unexplained weight loss – as early detection greatly improves survival.
They also advise not waiting until the recommended screening age of 45-50 to get colonoscopies or other cancer screenings. “If you have a family history of cancer or digestive conditions at earlier ages, start screening sooner,” says Dr. Chen. “Catching colon polyps early before they become cancerous could help stem this tide down the road.”
Scientists Search for Answers Behind Perplexing Trend
With lives on the line, researchers are urgently working to unravel why cancer is striking millennials and Gen Z adults hard and early.
Top theories being explored include:
Unhealthy lifestyles: Diets higher in processed foods, sugary drinks, alcohol and low in fruits/vegetables could fuel abnormal cell growth. Rising obesity levels also increase cancer risk.
Medical conditions: Gastrointestinal conditions like Crohn’s or colitis that create chronic inflammation may contribute.
Environmental toxins: Higher early-life exposure to pesticides, air/water pollutants, and endocrine disruptors like plastics are concerning.
Biological shifts: Changes to gut bacteria composition, hormones, or epigenetic markers affecting gene expression could play a role.
Further research is vital to reveal if cancer drivers have increased or if millenials have higher susceptibility. “This alarming pattern must be further studied to identify risks and causes,” says Dr. Benjamin Lawrence.
Young People Advised to Limit Lifestyle Risks
While mysteries around the trend persist, doctors strongly advise young adults to embrace healthy lifestyles to reduce cancer risks, including:
- Eating more fruits/vegetables, whole grains and less red meat or processed foods
- Avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol intake
- Maintaining healthy body weight
- Exercising 150 minutes per week
- Reducing environmental toxin exposures when possible
“It’s wise for young people to be proactive about their health – get informed on cancer risks, listen to your body, and see a doctor promptly for unusual or persistent symptoms,” says Dr. Chen.
Gastrointestinal Cancers Expected to Keep Increasing
Looking ahead, the ACS predicts the rise in early-onset gastrointestinal cancers like colorectal, pancreatic and stomach will continue, becoming an urgent public health crisis. They project over 18,000 colon cancer deaths in ages 20-49 in 2024 alone – meaning 1 in 5 colon cancer deaths this year will strike young adults in their prime decades of life.
“This disturbing epidemiological shift to younger ages raises critical questions on whether we’ll face significantly higher burden from these lethal cancers in decades to come,” says Dr. Lawrence. “We have to work rapidly to curb this tide before it becomes the new normal.”
Doctors advise policymakers to increase awareness and screening access for those under 50. Some say insurance guidelines on screening ages must be updated to prevent missed cases.
Researchers plan to launch studies analyzing youth cancer trends in different regions and demographic groups to isolate risk factors. They also hope to uncover any relevant biological or genetic changes in millennials that could explain the phenomenon.
“Solving this mystery won’t be quick or easy, but it’s imperative we uncover how and why cancer is becoming more common and aggressive earlier in life – the future health of our youth hangs in the balance,” says Dr. Chen.
- While overall cancer death rates are slowly declining, concerning spikes in colorectal, pancreatic, breast and other cancers are emerging among young adults.
- Millenials and Gen Z now face unexpectedly high risks of certain cancers in their 20s-40s that used to be rare.
- Doctors advise young people not to ignore symptoms and to start screenings sooner if at high risk.
- Healthier lifestyles and reducing exposures may help lower risks while scientists search for answers.
- If trends persist, the U.S. could see significantly greater cancer burden from these aggressive early-onset cases in years ahead.
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