What to Know About the Rise in Cancer Cases Among Younger People

Cancer deaths have declined over the years, but experts are working to understand why more people under the age of 50 are being diagnosed with the disease, especially colorectal cancer.

Cancer deaths have decreased in the United States over the last three decades, a 2024 report from the American Cancer Society (ACS) found. From 1991 to 2021, deaths dropped by 33%, with 4 million lives saved. While the decline in deaths is good news, the report also found that cancer cases are rising, especially for colorectal cancer in young adults. In 2024, the ACS estimates that there will be 2 million new cancer cases overall.

Dr. Joel Gabre, a gastroenterologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, says that a reason for the decline in deaths is in large part because many of these cancers are being caught early. “The concern is that the consistent, annual increase [among young people] is stark,” he says. “Colorectal cancer diagnoses are rising by 1% to 2% in people under 55 each year.”

Rise of Cancer Among Younger People

recent worldwide study of 29 cancers found that cancer rates across the globe have dramatically increased in people under the age of 50 since 1990. Researchers examined data from 204 countries and found that there were 3.26 million early-onset cancer cases in 2019, an increase of 79.1% from 1990.

According to ACS, colorectal cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and second in women under 50 in the United States. In the late 1990s, it was the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in this age range.

Other cancers have also seen a rise among this age group: breast, pancreas, and uterine cancers have risen by 0.6% to 1% since 1991, and prostate, liver, kidney, skin, and HPV-associated oral cancers have risen to 3% (a 2% increase).

“Advances in treatment including the introduction of new immunotherapies and targeted therapies are helping to improve outcomes,” says Dr. Gabre. “These advances are good for all patients. It means that if they do get diagnosed with cancer, there are more options.”

But we need to understand why more young people are developing cancer, he emphasized. “More research can help us understand why.”

Dr. Joel Gabre

The Importance of Screening

While researchers work to understand why more young people are being diagnosed with cancer, screening remains an effective tool to ensure that the disease is caught early.

“One of the preventive measures that we push for is screening, such as mammography to screen for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colorectal cancer or a low-dose computed tomography scan for lung cancer,” says Dr. Gabre. “More people are getting screened, especially for colorectal cancer, which is helping to bend the curve downwards for mortality because we are catching cancers or precancerous colon lesions earlier.”

Colonoscopies can help prevent colorectal cancer, and the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that people begin screening for this type of cancer starting at age 45. But for younger patients, Dr. Gabre says, “we are not screening them, which means that we are not catching these cancers earlier.”

Screening people earlier than 45 is usually determined by risk factors, such as family or personal history of cancer or other medical history. For patients who have a first-degree relative with colorectal cancer, such as a parent, screening is recommended 10 years before the age their relative was diagnosed or at age 40, whichever comes first.

Since findings have shown that there is also a rise in patients without risk factors, Dr. Gabre recommends people pay attention to their bodies and advocate for themselves with their health care providers.

“Until we have a better understanding of the rise in early onset colon cancer, patients and providers must act quicker to evaluate and rule out the causes of gastrointestinal symptoms, including unexplained abdominal pain, blood in the stool, change in bowel habits like new constipation or unexplained diarrhea and if necessary, refer patients to a gastroenterologist or other appropriate specialist.”

Dr. Joel Gabre sees patients in the Gastrointestinal Cancer Prevention and Genetics Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and runs a laboratory dedicated to understanding the molecular mechanisms of gastrointestinal tumors. Dr. Gabre is also an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Digestive and Liver Diseases and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University.

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