The incidence of cancer among people below the age of 50 is on the rise, leaving doctors puzzled about the underlying causes. The death of actor Chadwick Boseman in 2020 due to colorectal cancer at the age of 43 brought attention to this concerning trend. Colorectal cancer, in particular, has shown a significant increase among younger individuals. According to the American Cancer Society’s analysis, one in five new colorectal cancer patients in 2019 was below the age of 50, representing a doubling of the rate since 1995.
The rise in colorectal cancer cases among young people is seen as a warning sign, and researchers have observed a surge in various cancer types, many of which are linked to or near the gastrointestinal tract, such as appendix, pancreatic, stomach, and uterine cancers. The trend challenges the conventional understanding that cancer is primarily a disease of aging.
Patients like Meilin Keen, a 27-year-old diagnosed with gastric cancer, exemplify the challenges faced by young cancer sufferers. Keen had her stomach removed in 2023, impacting her aspirations of becoming a lawyer and relocating to New York City. Despite experiencing stomach issues since her teenage years, Keen was surprised to receive a cancer diagnosis in her 20s, highlighting the impact such a diagnosis can have on a person’s identity.
Gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, including colorectal and gastric cancers, are disproportionately affecting younger populations, and the reasons behind this phenomenon remain unclear. Various factors, including sedentary behavior during childhood, nutrition, diet, weight, and even the mode of birth (cesarean section), have been speculated to contribute to the rise in young-onset cancers. The medical community is grappling with the challenge of understanding and addressing the increasing number of cancer diagnoses among the younger generation, prompting discussions about lowering the recommended age for screenings.
In response to the trend, the American Cancer Society adjusted its guidelines in 2020, recommending colon cancer screenings to start at age 45. However, for individuals like Keen, who faced gastric cancer in her 20s, such recommendations still fall short. The urgency to comprehend the factors contributing to the rise in cancer among young people is crucial, as it impacts not only the current generation but also poses challenges for future healthcare planning and interventions.