Cancer Rates Are Rising in People Under 50. Here’s Why & How to Lower Your Risk

If you’re in your thirties or even forties, even if you keep up with your mammograms and other screenings, cancer might not be at the forefront of your mind. However, it’s important to know that the number of people under the age of 50 who are being diagnosed with cancer is increasing at a faster rate than those 50 and older, according to the American Cancer Society’s latest statistical report.

While cancer rates in the United States are expected to top two million for the first time this year, this new data highlights a growing concern among younger adults. 

The proportion of people under the age of 50 diagnosed with cancer dropped three percent, 15 percent to 12 percent, from 1995 to 2020, due to their shrinking representation in the general population, but their age group saw the largest increase in overall cancer cases. Most notable was the increase in colorectal cancer.

Why have colorectal cancer cases increased?

In the late 1990s, colorectal cancer was the fourth leading cause of cancer death for both men and women younger than 50, and now it is the leading cause of cancer death for men, and second leading cause of cancer death for women in this age group. 

The report says the rise in colorectal cancer cases is unexplainable, but notes that almost one in three people diagnosed with the cancer before age 50 have a family history or genetic predisposition. The American Cancer Society’s report also states the rise in cases “likely reflects changes in lifestyle exposures that begin with generations born around 1950.”

Other notable trends include increases in endometrial and pancreatic cancers across all age categories, and an increase in cervical cancer in women ages 30 to 44. Liver cancer has also increased in women of all age groups. 

Which communities have the highest cancer risk?

The American Cancer Society also reports that the LGTBQ+ community faces unique challenges that put them at risk of developing cancer. Notably, lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to have a higher risk of breast cancer due to higher likelihoods of risk factors, including fewer childbirths, higher alcohol use, and higher body weight. But more data is needed to fully understand their risk factors across all age groups. There are currently no active methods for collecting information on incidence and mortality exist for the LGBTQ+ community, because sexual orientation and gender identity are not consistently collected in medical records, according to the report. 

“The LGBTQ+ population has some differences in exposures that are probably pretty influential in terms of their risk for developing cancer,  but we can’t look at the cancer risk because we don’t have data. Data is also key for the development of targeted cancer-control efforts. It’s time the US fills that gap,” Rebecca Siegel, the report’s lead author and senior scientific director of surveillance research for the American Cancer Society, says in the report. 

Racial disparities in cancer diagnosis are also significant across age groups, as Black people are twice as likely to develop prostate, stomach, and uterine cancer than white people. Black women with endometrial cancer have a death rate that is two times higher than white women. Researchers say this is in large part because they are diagnosed later, and therefore face a higher mortality rate from the cancer than white women. 

How can we increase cancer prevention among people under 50?

There is some somewhat good news in all this: The United State’s cancer mortality rate fell 33 percent from 1991 through 2021, equating to an estimated 4.1 million fewer cancer deaths. Researchers attribute this to disease management and detection, along with fewer people smoking. 

“We’re encouraged by the steady drop in cancer mortality as a result of less smoking, earlier detection for some cancers, and improved treatment,” Rebecca Siegel, the report’s lead author and senior scientific director of surveillance research for the American Cancer Society, said in a statement. “But as a nation, we’ve dropped the ball on cancer prevention as incidence continues to increase for many common cancers – like breast, prostate, and endometrial, as well as colorectal and cervical cancers in some young adults.”

Lisa Lacasse, president of the American Cancer Society’s advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said the report’s findings highlight the growing need for policies that address these disparities. 

“We urge lawmakers at all levels of government to advance policies that ensure more people have health insurance coverage as well as improved access to and affordability of care, such as increased funding for cancer research and screening programs,” Lacasse said in a statement. “Doing so will bring us closer to our vision of ending cancer as we know it, for everyone.”

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