Study Finds Early-Onset Cancers Skyrocketing Globally: A Closer Look

Cancer rates skyrocket for under 50s since the 1990s. Why is this happening?
Study Finds Early-Onset Cancers Skyrocketing Globally: A Closer Look
(Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock)
George Citroner

A troubling new trend is emerging worldwide. Cancer rates in people under 50 are skyrocketing at an unprecedented rate, according to a global study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Cancer cases in people aged 14 to 49 have increased by nearly 80 percent in three decades—from 1.82 million in 1990 to 3.26 million in 2019—according to the comprehensive study spanning 204 countries and 29 cancer types.

The outlook for the next decade is even more dire; researchers predict a further 31 percent increase in global early-onset cancer by 2030.

This rise reveals the global scale of the problem, as cancer continues its march into younger age groups. The research team noted that variable cancer registry data quality in different countries may lead to significant under-reporting and under-diagnosis.

Just a Few Types of Cancers Drive Increased Incidence

The study found the sharpest rises in nasopharyngeal, a rare throat cancer involving the area from the back of the nose to the back of the mouth, and prostate cancers. The sharpest decrease was observed in liver cancer.

Those in their 40s will bear the brunt. The study predicts the 40–44 and 45–49 age brackets will represent a significant proportion of early-onset cancer cases and deaths in the next decade.

However, despite the steep increase in incidence, cancer deaths rose just 27.7 percent—from approximately 800,000 in 1990 to 1.06 million in 2019—a possible sign of improved treatments.

In the United States, cancer death rates have been falling for decades. The American Cancer Society reports a 33 percent reduction in cancer mortality since 1991, preventing an estimated 3.8 million deaths. But rising breast, prostate, and uterine cancers may slow future progress, according to the cancer advocacy organization.
The BMJ study reveals that in 2019, early-onset breast, tracheal, bronchus and lung, stomach, and colorectal cancers exhibited the highest mortality and disease burden.

Factors Linked to Surging Early-Onset Cancers

Genetics, as well as dietary factors like red meat, salt, and insufficient fruit and milk intake, may contribute to early-onset cancers, along with lifestyle choices such as alcohol and tobacco, according to the global study.

Immunological alterations from environmental factors could also play a role, Dr. Paolo Boffetta, who has more than 30 years of experience in cancer epidemiology and is an associate director for population sciences at the Stony Brook Cancer Center in New York, told The Epoch Times. "[But] the exact reason for that is unclear,” he added, noting that increased obesity rates are another possibility.

Obesity is a risk factor for several major cancers, including postmenopausal breast, colorectal, endometrial, kidney, esophageal, pancreatic, liver, and gallbladder cancer, a study published in January found. Excess body fat results in approximately a 17 percent increased risk of death from cancer.
The best way to reduce the risk of cancer is by following the advice health professionals have been giving for years, Dr. Boffetta said. Besides eating a balanced diet and exercising, this includes:
  • Avoiding smoking.
  • Drinking moderately, if at all.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Getting cancer screenings as recommended for your age group.

What's Behind the Surge in Nasopharyngeal and Prostate Cancers?

The cause for the sharp windpipe cancer increase is unknown, Dr. Boffetta said, though, he noted the rise was proportional given the rarity of this cancer type. However, Dr. Sarah P. Cate, Director, Special Surveillance and Breast Program, Mount Sinai Health System, said that the increasing rates of windpipe cancer "may be linked to alcohol use and smoking."
For prostate cancer, he said he believed more young people getting prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests leads to earlier detection. This pushes diagnoses 10 or even 15 years earlier than they would occur otherwise.

Given the relatively low cancer rates in the young versus later in life, this prostate cancer increase should be taken with a grain of salt, according to Dr. Boffetta.

Cate emphasized that alcohol is a known carcinogen and linked to breast cancer and cancers of the head and neck, while a sedentary lifestyle also increases the risk of cancer, as well as obesity. "All of these risk factors are increasing in prevalence so are connected to increasing rates of cancer," she said.

Boffetta pointed out that although the study findings sound dramatic, other factors must be considered.

“I don't think there is an epidemic of cancer in the young," he said. "There are some critical aspects that need to be studied, but it is against a picture of decreasing trends overall in the population at large.”

George Citroner reports on health and medicine, covering topics that include cancer, infectious diseases, and neurodegenerative conditions. He was awarded the Media Orthopaedic Reporting Excellence (MORE) award in 2020 for a story on osteoporosis risk in men.