New research shows cancer is on the rise in teenagers and young adults. Experts and survivors are calling for a new approach to treating this age group.
Published Dec 1, 2020
Cancer rates in adolescents and young adults have spiked over the past forty years, a trend that has many researchers calling for more focus on the demographic.
Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine found that the number of cancer cases amongst teens and young adults increased by nearly 30% between 1972 and 2015. Their findings, published today, show rates of kidney, thyroid, and gastrointestinal cancers on the rise as cancer continues to be the leading cause of disease-related deaths in this age group.
The study indicated that the increase might be largely explained by “environmental factors, dietary and obesity trends, and changes in screening practices”.
More cases of gastrointestinal, thyroid, and kidney cancers are likely tied to higher levels of obesity. Other prominent cancers in this age group, like testicular, breast, or skin cancers, can largely be explained through more exposure to known carcinogens, STDs, or other environmental factors. Increased access to cancer screenings was also cited as a potential factor, as was overexposure to chemotherapy and radiation.
“Adolescents and young adults are a distinct cancer population,” Dr. Nicholas Zaorsky, assistant professor of radiation oncology and public health sciences, said. “But they are often grouped together with pediatric or adult patients in research studies. It is important to study how this group is distinct so that care guidelines can be developed to address the increase in cases.”
Dr. Zaorsky emphasized that more research is needed to determine the ideal preventative, screening, and treatment protocols for cancers in young adults.
“Now that there is a better understanding of the types of cancer that are prevalent and rising in this age group, prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment protocols specifically targeted to this population should be developed.”
The rise in cases is particularly concerning because of the historic lack of information pertaining to cancers in this specific age group.
A previous study by the same institution found that adolescents were significantly less likely to receive care in a specialized treatment facility than children and raised concerns that this disparity might lead to worse outcomes for young women with breast cancer, the most common type of cancer in this group.
When Mag Bujalski was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma, she searched everywhere for information about cancer in young adults like herself – to little avail.
“When I first got sick, I did what most people do and I turned to Instagram, YouTube, Google – famous doctor Google,” Mag told SurvivorNet. “And I noticed that there was a lot of stuff about pediatric cancer, a lot about cancers in older people, but there wasn’t a lot about cancers in young adults and people my age.”
Matthew Zachary faced that same lack of information when he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at only 21 years old. His fight, and the all-too-familiar stories of young adults battling through a medical system that seemed to forget them, led him to create Stupid Cancer, an award-winning non-profit solely dedicated to advocating, connecting, and supporting young adults and survivors.
“I feel like I was hand-sculpted to create an organization,” Zachary told SurvivorNet, “and be a voice for the invisible Gen-Xers – the most underserved age group in cancer. We get it more, we die more, we are diagnosed late, we are misunderstood … it’s different, and if you want to save our lives, it requires a completely different framework.”
SurvivorNet has previously spoken to a number of other young adults whose lives were upended by cancer diagnoses.
CC Webster’s picture-perfect life was turned upside-down after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma. Following her successful battle, she turned to the written word, writing “So, That Happened, A Memoir” to provide a message of hope for other young adults struggling through the illness.
“I wanted to write and depict a story that was raw and honest and meaningful, and could potentially make somebody feel less alone. It’s okay that life doesn’t go to plan.”