People below the age of 50 are getting cancer more than ever before — and doctors are stumped as to why.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the shocking 2020 death of beloved actor Chadwick Boseman, who died of colorectal cancer at only 43 years old, seemed to wake the public up to the growing trend that researchers had been warning about for a decade prior.
"Colorectal cancer was the canary in the coal mine," mused cancer epidemiologist Timothy Rebbeck of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Soon after, there was seemingly an explosion of all different types of cancers, many of which deal with or are near the gastrointestinal tract: appendix, pancreatic, stomach, and uterine.
As the WSJ points out, incidences of colorectal cancer in younger people have risen significantly in recent decades, with one in five new patients diagnosed with that type of cancer being below 50 in 2019, a rate that had doubled since the year 1995, per an analysis from the American Cancer Society last year.
"We are seeing more and more young people who don’t fit the classic teaching that cancer is a disease of aging," Monique Gary, the medical director of the cancer program at Pennsylvania's Grand View Health Center, told the WSJ.
One such youthful cancer patient is 27-year-old Meilin Keen, who had her stomach removed at the end of 2023 following a gastric cancer diagnosis. Keen told the newspaper that she had to postpone taking the bar exam because the brain fog from chemo made studying too hard, which effectively put her dreams of becoming a lawyer and moving to New York City on hold.
Though she'd struggled with stomach issues, including acid reflux and heartburn, since she was a teen, Keen was understandably taken aback to be diagnosed with cancer in her 20s.
"I didn’t really think that much about cancer until I got it," she told the WSJ. "It messes with your identity."
GI-based cancers like Keen's seem to be occurring among youthful populations much more often than other types, and it remains unclear why. There's been all kinds of educated speculation as to what may be going on there, from research into the amount of time young women spent watching TV growing up and many others that deal with nutrition, diet, and weight. One study even claimed to find a link between being born via caesarian section and developing young-onset colorectal cancer.
Regardless of the causes, doctors are having to deal with the onslaught of young cancer diagnoses. Just a few months after Boseman died in 2020, the American Cancer Society began recommending colon cancer screenings starting at age 45 — though for people like Keen, that's still much too old to catch it.
"If we’re not understanding what it is now," Dr. Kimmie Ng of Dana-Farber, told the WSJ, "there’s another whole generation that’s going to be dealing with this."
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