The American Cancer Society (ACS) released its annual Facts & Figures report this week, highlighting concerning trends in cancer incidence and mortality, especially among young adults. As overall cancer death rates continue to decline, largely thanks to improvements in detection and treatment, certain cancers are rising at an alarming rate among adults under 50.
Colon Cancer Skyrockets in Young Men
According to the ACS report, colon cancer has surpassed lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in men under 50. Rates of colon cancer diagnoses in young adults have been sharply rising over the past decade, increasing by 17% since 2012.
While the exact causes remain unknown, doctors suspect lifestyle factors like poor diet, lack of exercise, and obesity may be partly to blame.
“For adults in their twenties and thirties, colon cancer was practically unheard of twenty years ago,” said Dr. Rebecca Siegel of the ACS. “Now it’s the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in this age group.”
Other gastrointestinal cancers like pancreatic, liver, and gastric are also on the rise among young adults of both genders.
|Increase in Incidence, Ages 20-49
Early screening and detection of colon cancer saves lives, but current guidelines don’t recommend adults at average risk start getting colonoscopies until age 45. Many doctors are now urging broader screening among younger populations.
Survivornet.com reports that earlier screening could have prevented over 60,000 cancer deaths in the past twenty years.
Young Women Face Elevated Breast Cancer Risk
Breast cancer remains the most common cancer in women under 50, now representing nearly 1 in 3 cancer diagnoses in this age group. Incidence rates increased by 5% between 2012 and 2022.
Doctors cite several factors that may be driving this trend:
- Having fewer children, later in life
- Not breastfeeding
- Hormones from birth control and fertility treatments
- Drinking alcohol
- Obesity and poor diet
The ACS recommends women at average risk start getting annual mammograms at 40 instead of 50. They advise knowing your family history and reporting any unusual breast changes to your doctor right away.
Stark Disparities Persist Across Demographics
While advancements in early detection and treatment have significantly reduced overall cancer mortality, cutting the death rate by 33% since 1991, not all groups have benefited equally.
The ACS statistics reveal continued disparities along racial, economic, and geographic lines:
- African Americans suffer the highest cancer death rates of any racial or ethnic group, dying at 33% higher rates for men and 16% higher rates for women compared to whites.
- Death rates are considerably higher in the South and Midwest than the Northeast or West Coast.
- Uninsured patients suffer far worse outcomes than those with private insurance or Medicare.
“Equal access to prevention, early detection, and high-quality treatment would dramatically reduce the incredible suffering and loss from cancer in marginalized communities,” said ACS CEO Gary Reedy. “We still have a long way to go.”
Ongoing Research Seeks to Unravel Cancer Mysteries
The medical community continues researching the apparent rise in early-onset cancers, looking for definitive explanations and solutions.
Top theories under investigation include:
- Environmental factors: Research shows toxic chemicals called PFAS accumulating rapidly over the past 20 years. These compounds persist in the environment and have been linked to various cancers.
- Western lifestyle: Diets high in processed foods but low in fiber, compounded by sedentary lifestyles and widespread obesity, may promote cancer growth.
- Advanced detection: As screening tech improves, we’re simply catching more early-stage cases that previously went undetected.
Doctors urge the following prevention strategies:
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, and fiber
- Exercise regularly
- Limit red meat and eliminate processed meat
- Maintain healthy body weight
- Don’t smoke or abuse alcohol
- Take part in recommended screening
Genetic factors can also contribute to developing certain cancers. People concerned about their risk should speak to their doctor about genetic testing.
Researchers continue working urgently toward better understanding of both the causes and treatments. The medical journal JAMA Oncology says unraveling the mystery behind rising early-onset cancers is one of the “highest priorities in cancer prevention and control.”
The Road Ahead
While the latest statistics paint a worrying picture for younger adults, cancer death rates continue trending downward overall thanks to progress in detection and treatment.
The ACS estimates over 4 million cancer deaths have been averted in the U.S. since 1991 thanks to these advances. Continued research and increased access to quality prevention and care will hopefully accelerate this positive momentum.
Doctors advise widespread caution nonetheless, urging younger generations not to ignore health symptoms and ensure adherence to age-appropriate screening guidelines.
“These trends are very concerning,” said Dr. Rebecca Siegel. “But the good news is with screening and early intervention, colon cancer is often highly treatable. We can reverse this trajectory if we act now.”
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