Young Person with Cancer

Are You Too Young for Cancer?

Establishing a career and starting a family are typically top of mind for young adults. Cancer is not.

But the reality is you’re never too young to develop cancer. In fact, every year more than 60,000 Americans age 20-39 are diagnosed with cancer. Cancer is the fourth leading cause of death in this age group, following accidents, suicide, and homicide. It is the main cause for disease-related death among young women and second among young men.

Young adults can be diagnosed with a range of cancers that are common to all age groups – children, teens, and older adults – and that span’s likely causes are genetics, environment, or lifestyle. While cancer is uncommon in young adults overall, here are some of the most common types of cancer found in young adults:

Lymphomas most often affect lymph nodes and lymph tissues, like tonsils. Hodgkin lymphoma is most common in young people, particularly age 15-40, and in older adults over age 55.

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has increased significantly in the last 30 years.

Sarcomas are cancers in connecting tissues, such as fat cells, bones or muscles and are often found in children and young adults.

Thyroid cancer, mostly occurring in women, is commonly found as a lump in front of the neck. The incidence of new diagnoses has risen over the last decade.

Testicular cancer has increased in the last several decades, for unknown reasons, with about half of these cancers occurring in men between ages 20 and 34.

Cancers in this age group often go unchecked due to lack of regular doctor visits or, as a result of ignoring symptoms because of an understandable – but risky – ‘invincibility mindset’ that is common in younger years. Additionally, regular screenings are not typically recommended for young adults, compared to the litany of tests suggested for older adults such as colonoscopies, mammograms, and prostate exams.

That means it is especially important for young adults to take ownership of their overall health and to give proper attention to prevention and monitoring for concerning symptoms.

First, young adults should maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. Make sure you are eating mostly fruits and vegetables, getting regular physical activity, and avoiding eating large amounts of red meats and sugars. Not only will you lower your risk of cancer, but you’ll feel better and lower your risk for many other diseases including heart disease and diabetes.

Second, be on the lookout for common cancer signs including persistent pain in a particular part of the body, unusual bleeding, easy bruising, a new spot or mole on the skin, reoccurring headaches, persistent fatigue, or a lump or swelling anywhere in the body. Because these symptoms could be linked to many other, far less severe health issues, it’s important to discuss symptoms like these with your doctor.

Finally, take time to research your family’s medical history. If your family has a genetic pre-disposition for any type of cancer, discuss screening options and warning signs with your primary care physician. You may need to be screened at an earlier age.

The key to effectively treating and surviving cancer is early detection. That’s true at any age. But for ostensibly healthy young adults, who are understandably focused on living busy, engaging lives, the need to be alert to cancer risks and signs cannot be overstated.

Alvaro Restrepo, MD