New study finds alarming rise in cancer rates among people under 50


Queen Stewart, a lawyer and mother of two, learned she had breast cancer at age 35. She found the lump herself because she was too young for insurance-paid screenings.

“I just cried, and I just worried so much about whether I would be here for my girls,” Stewart told CBS News. 

According to a new study published this week in BMJ Oncology, cancer rates worldwide have risen dramatically in people under the age of 50.

Researchers examined data from 204 countries between 1990 and 2019. They found that there were more than 3.26 million early-onset cancer cases reported in those countries in 2019, up from 1.82 million in 1990, an increase of 79.1%.

The study defined early-onset cancer as a diagnosis that occurs between the ages of 14 and 49.

The number of early-onset cancer deaths rose from about 800,000 in 1990 to 1.06 million in 2019, researchers found.

Of the 29 types of cancer that were studied, breast cancer in 2019 accounted for the most early-onset cases, 16.5%, as well as the most early-onset deaths, 12.84%.

Meanwhile, both early-onset prostate cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer showed the fastest increases in incident rates of any types of cancer over that 30-year period.

“Those numbers are remarkable,” said Dr. Christopher Flowers, an oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The study said that while genetics is a contributing factor to the increase, poor diet, alcohol and tobacco use, physical inactivity and obesity also play major roles.

“Dietary risk factors (diet high in red meat, low in fruits, high in sodium and low in milk, etc.), alcohol consumption and tobacco use are the main risk factors underlying early-onset cancers,” the study concluded.

Researchers found that the availability of medical care by region can also impact the number of cases and deaths.

“I think it’s important for younger individuals who meet screening criteria to consider and pursue screening at age-appropriate times,” Flowers said.

In the U.S., the recommended age to start colon cancer screenings was recently lowered from age 50 to 45, while the recommended age for breast cancer screenings was lowered from 50 to 40.

“Look at the importance of screening, and that really gets to the point around those screenable cancers: there’s breast cancer, colorectal cancer, cervix cancer,” Flowers said.

The study projected that early-onset cancer rates will increase 31% by 2030, while cancer deaths will rise 21%.

Meanwhile, Stewart had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She’s now in remission and says she has a new lease on life.

It had me create a sense of urgency in my life to live now, to find joy, to be more present for my family,” Stewart said.

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