An 'epidemic' of cancer among younger people


It is hoped that the 42-year-old Catherine’s revelation of her cancer diagnosis will highlight the rising number of younger people being diagnosed with this often-incurable illness. — Reuters filepic

When Catherine, Princess of Wales, revealed that she was being treated for cancer last month (March 2024), part of the shock was that an otherwise healthy 42-year-old has a disease that mostly plagues older people.

However, researchers have been increasingly sounding the alarm that more and more people under 50 are getting cancer, and no one knows why.

Across the world, the rate of under-50s diagnosed with 29 common cancers surged by nearly 80% between 1990 and 2019, a large study in the journal BMJ Oncology found last year (2023).

The researchers predicted the number of new cancer cases among younger adults will rise another 30% by the end of this decade, with wealthy countries particularly affected.

The increase in cases – and soaring global population – means that the number of deaths among under-50s from cancer has risen by nearly 28% over the last 30 years.

ALSO READ: More people aged below 50 are being hit by cancer

This occurred even as the odds of people of all ages surviving cancer have roughly doubled over the last half-a-century.

Dr Shivan Sivakumar, a cancer researcher at the United Kingdom’s University of Birmingham, called it an “epidemic” of young adult cancer.

Since Catherine (also popularly known by her maiden name Kate Middleton) revealed on March 22 (2024) that her cancer was discovered after she received abdominal surgery earlier this year, Dr Shivan and other doctors have spoken out about the uptick in younger cancer patients they have been seeing at their clinics.

While breast cancer remains the most common for people under 50, the researchers expressed particular concern about the rise of gastrointestinal cancers, such as of the colon, pancreas, liver and oesophagus, in younger adults.

Colon cancer is now the leading cause of cancer deaths in men under 50 in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

For women, it is number two, behind only breast cancer.

One high profile case of colorectal cancer was Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman, who died at the age of 43 in 2020.

Possible causes

Why is this happening though?

“We just don’t have the evidence yet” to say exactly what is causing this rise, Dr Shivan said, adding that it was likely a combination of factors.

UK’s Queen’s University Belfast cancer epidemiology professor Dr Helen Coleman, who has studied early onset cancer in Northern Ireland, said that there were two potential explanations.

One is that people in their 40s were exposed to factors known to cause cancer, such as tobacco smoke, alcohol or being obese, at an earlier age than previous generations.

She pointed out that the “obesity epidemic” did not start until the 1980s.

Dr Shivan felt that at least part of the puzzle could be explained by obesity.

ALSO READ: Teenage obesity linked to 17 cancers in later life

However, there is “another wave” of under-50 patients who are neither obese nor genetically predisposed, but still getting cancer, he emphasised, adding that this could not be put down to “statistical chance”.

The other theory, Prof Coleman said, is that “something different” has been going on with her generation.

Fingers have been pointed at a range of possible culprits, including chemicals, new drugs and microplastics, but none have been proven.

Some have suggested that so-called ultra-processed foods could be to blame.

“But there’s very little data to back any of that up,” she said.

Another theory is that the food we eat could be changing our gut microbiome.

While there is nothing conclusive yet, Prof Coleman said her own research suggested that cancer causes changes to the microbiome, not the other way around.

Anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists have even tried to blame Covid-19 vaccines.

This is easily disproven, because the rise in young adult cancer has taken place over decades, but the vaccines have only been around for a few years.

Proactive steps

To address the rise in younger colorectal cancer, the US lowered the recommended age for screening to 45 in 2021.

Other countries have yet to follow suit.

But the researchers hope that Catherine’s experience will remind people that they should consult their doctor if they sense anything is wrong.

“People know their bodies really well,” Dr Shivan said.

“If you really feel that something isn’t right, don’t delay, just get yourself checked out.” – AFP Relaxnews

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