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Early-Onset Cancers: A Growing Concern for Adults Under 50

Cancer Care
Author name: Lee Health


Have you ever thought that cancer is something that only affects older adults? Think again. Doctors are seeing an alarming increase in cancers diagnosed in people under age 50.  This trend, known as early-onset cancers, shows no signs of slowing down.

The most common types of early-onset cancers are breast, colon, endometrial (uterine), and some lung cancers. But why are more young people being diagnosed at such high rates?

"The causes behind this rise aren’t fully understood, but factors like obesity, sedentary lifestyles, poor diets, and environmental exposures are potential factors," says Dr. Raju Vaddepally, a board-certified hematologist-oncologist with Lee Health Cancer Institute.

The obesity epidemic

Obesity is a complex disease that occurs when a person’s weight is higher than what’s considered healthy for their height. 

According to data from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, more than 42 percent of American adults have obesity.  Nearly 40 percent of adults ages 20 to 39 have obesity, and 22.2 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds have obesity. 

"Obesity is a major risk factor for more than a dozen types of cancer, including breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Vaddepally says. “With obesity rates rising so drastically in young people, this likely contributes to more early-onset cancer cases."

The earlier someone becomes overweight or obese, the more years their cells are exposed to cancer-promoting factors released by excess fat tissue, Dr. Vaddepally explains. 

However, Dr. Vaddepally cautions that the obesity epidemic, while a likely contributor to the growing rate of early-onset cancers, doesn’t fully explain the increase. 

Poor diet and inactivity

A diet of processed, fatty, sugary foods has been tied to increased cancer risks, especially colorectal cancers, according to research. At the same time, only about 23 percent of adults in the U.S. get enough physical activity to meet recommended guidelines.

"The people who exercise regularly have about a 30 percent lower cancer risk," Dr. Vaddepally says. "A diet lacking fruits, veggies and fiber but high in red meat and refined carbs is a potential contributor to the rising cancer rates. More specifically, red meat like beef, pork, and lamb is associated with an increased risk of colon and rectum cancer, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.”

READ: Actor’s Death Spotlights Colon Cancer Dangers in Young Adults

Environmental exposures

While lifestyle factors are a major piece of the puzzle, emerging research suggests certain environmental pollutants and chemicals may be carcinogenic (cancer-causing), particularly for young people exposed during critical windows of development.

Potential exposures of concern include pesticides, plastics, flame retardants, and air pollutants. One study estimated that nearly 1 in 5 cancers may have an environmental exposure link.

WATCH: Colon Cancer On the Rise in Younger People

Beyond lifestyle factors

In addition to obesity, poor nutrition, and environmental risks, other factors that may contribute to early cancer onset include:

  • Obesity during pregnancy could impact fetal development and cancer susceptibility later in life. Excess weight in pregnancy has been linked to a higher risk of cancers like colon cancer in offspring.
  • Disruptions to the gut microbiome and unhealthy bacterial populations, which research shows, can influence cancer development.
  • Medical radiation exposure at young ages from excessive scanning and testing.  
  • Chronic stress and social/psychological influences on the body's immune function and cancer defenses.

READ: Fasting for your gut health: Does it work?

How to prevent cancer or find it early

While some cancer risk factors are out of your control, there are important ways you can lower your risk, Dr. Vaddepally says, including: 

  • Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular physical activity.
  • Avoiding alcohol, smoking/vaping, and excessive UV radiation exposure.
  • Finding healthy ways to reduce and manage stress.
  • Know your family's cancer history and discuss it with your doctor.

Cancer screenings save lives

Regular cancer screenings can help find cancer before you have symptoms and when treatment is likely to work best. 

“When a screening finds abnormal tissue or cancer at an early stage before symptoms develop, it’s generally easier to treat or cure,” Dr. Vaddepally notes. “For example, colorectal polyps and colorectal cancer don’t always cause symptoms, especially at first. That’s why getting screened regularly for colorectal cancer is important.”

Dr. Vaddepally recommends regular screenings for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers. Lung cancer screening is recommended for some people who are at high risk.

To learn more and schedule a Lee Health cancer screening, go here.

“Don't ignore potential symptoms just because you're young," Dr. Vaddepally advises. "See your doctor promptly about any unusual lumps, abnormal bleeding, persistent fatigue, unexplained weight loss or other concerning changes."

By adopting a healthy lifestyle, being proactive about screening, and watching for potential signs, you can maximize your chances of preventing cancer or catching it early when it's most treatable.

The numbers 

Just how big is the rise in early-onset cancers? Data show the proportion of colorectal cancer cases among adults younger than 55 has doubled in the past few decades, from 11 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2019. Similar increases have been seen in cancers like pancreatic and stomach.

While overall cancer deaths continue declining thanks to better screening and treatment, cancer incidence rates increased by about 1 percent to 3 percent annually from 2015 to 2019 for breast, prostate, pancreas, liver, melanoma and other cancers.

The rise of early-onset cancers is concerning but not inevitable. Taking control of the risk factors in your power, like diet, exercise, and limiting exposures, can go a long way in reducing your cancer risk down the road. 

As Dr. Vaddepally says, "Understanding the causes driving this trend is crucial for reversing it through better prevention and earlier detection."

The best cancer care in Southwest Florida is local

Lee Health Cancer Institute is Southwest Florida’s region’s only accredited comprehensive cancer center. Our nationally recognized center offers care and treatment for nearly every aspect of cancer care under one roof. The center’s national survivorship rates exceed national averages.

The Lee Health Cancer Institute holds nationally recognized accreditations from the Commission on Cancer (CoC), the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC), the National Pancreas Foundation and the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer. 

Regional Cancer Center
8931 Colonial Center Drive
Fort Myers, FL 33905
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Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation Cancer Clinic at the Bonita Health Center

Patients now have access to innovative treatment therapies, clinical trials, and research in the South Lee community. To expand oncology services to residents and visitors of South Lee and Collier counties, the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation Cancer Clinic at the Bonita Health Center at Coconut Point opened in September.  

3501 Health Center Blvd.
Estero, FL 34135
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