[5 min read]
In this article:
- A recent study found an increased prevalence of cancer in people under 50.
- The study noted increases of endocrine, gastrointestinal and breast cancers in people between the ages of 30 and 39 and increases in cancer among Asian and Pacific Islanders and Hispanics.
- We spoke with Swedish experts to help us understand this new information and for advice on cancer prevention and staying healthy.
An estimated 1.9 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States. A study published in August in the JAMA Network Open showed that cancers among people younger than 50 have risen slightly, even while cancer among older adults is on the decline. Two concerning patterns noted in the study are the increases in cancer in those between the ages of 30 and 39, and the increasing rates of endocrine, gastrointestinal and breast cancer among women. Researchers also noted greater differences when breaking results down by race, with the greatest increases in early-onset cancers among Asian and Pacific Islanders and Hispanics.
The study was conducted by a group of researchers from around the world and analyzed data from more than 560,000 patients in the United States who were under the age of 50 when they were diagnosed with cancer between 2010 and 2021. In the overall group, researchers found a 1 percent increase in the incidence of cancer. The trend was most pronounced, however, in the 30-to-39 age group. Cases among that cohort increased by some 19 percent. Specifically, researchers found significant increases in breast and gastrointestinal cancers, with a striking increase in cases among younger women.
To put this information in perspective and learn more about what we can to reduce our own risk, we spoke with Michela Tsai, M.D., medical director of breast medical oncology, and Michele Pulling, M.D., a Swedish gastroenterologist.
“Although there is a rise in cancer among young people, the total number of patients with these cancers remains at a low level—the researchers found an overall increase of one percent,” says Dr. Pulling. “Patients should be aware of this information and be vigilant about new symptoms, but I’d advise avoiding excessive worry unless someone is experiencing new symptoms such as abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss, bleeding from their GI tract, or changes in their bowel habits; then they should see their doctor—including making an appointment to seeing a gastroenterologist.”
“Staying healthy and getting regular checkups are your best first line of defense. Make sure to discuss your family history and any concerns with your primary care provider. Clinicians are your partners in your health care. Our goal is to make sure you stay healthy.” - Michele Pulling, M.D.
Dr. Tsai stresses that the study is a reminder to be attentive, but not anxious, about our health.
“While the results of this study may be surprising to some, they are consistent with what I am seeing in my practice,” she says. “I have more women in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s with breast cancer now than I have had at any time in the past 18 years. But the overall numbers are still very low so I do not think women need to be alarmed, though they certainly should be aware that they are at risk of cancer.”
“If you have a strong family history of breast, ovarian, prostate, pancreas and/or colon cancer, you should consider genetic testing, adds Dr. Tsai. “Ideally, a family member who has had cancer would get tested first. However, testing is readily available, often covered by insurance, and not that expensive when not covered by insurance. I would certainly encourage a 30-year-old with a family history of breast cancer to seek genetic counseling.”
Dr. Tsai noted that we are still working to understand the notable jumps among Asians and Pacific Islanders.
“What we do know is that women are choosing to start their families at a younger age and to have fewer children. There is something protective about pregnancy and breastfeeding and we are seeing that benefit diminish,” says Dr. Tsai. “We are also seeing more women stay on hormonal contraceptives for longer periods of time, sometimes starting at age 15 or 16 and continuing until age 50. This increases risk.”
Both Dr. Tsai and Dr. Pulling emphasize the importance of screenings and healthy lifestyle in mitigating cancer risk.
“Patients should follow general recommendations to remain healthy,” advises Dr. Pulling. “This includes avoid tobacco, maintaining a normal BMI of 20 to 25, limiting consumption of alcohol, red meats and processed meats, and following their provider’s screening recommendations, including colorectal cancer screening starting at 45 years old.”
Dr. Tsai reminds patients that there have been recent changes in breast screening guidelines and that recommendations change every five to 10 years.
“Given the rise of cancer in younger patients, especially those of underrepresented populations, the new recommended age for screening is 45. I would certainly agree with that for most women. Those with a strong family history may need to consider screening at a younger age,” she says.
“Staying healthy and getting regular checkups are your best first line of defense,” says Dr. Pulling. “Make sure to discuss your family history and any concerns with your primary care provider. Clinicians are your partners in your health care. Our goal is to make sure you stay healthy.”
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