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Cancer cases among under-50s have increased the most since 1995 – study

Experts have discovered the number of people under 50 being diagnosed with cancer in the UK has risen by 25% in two decades, a sharper increase than any other age group.

This weekend the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) was held in Chicago – the world’s largest cancer conference. At the event, experts discussed the new, heartbreaking facts that cancer cases have increased in people under 50 – a fact that was discovered by Cancer Research UK. The charity found early onset cases of cancer grew from 132.9 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 164.6 in 2019. Research has found about 35,000 under-50s are now developing cancer every year, almost 100 young women and men a day.

red round fruits on white and blue surfaceMedical professionals are still in the early stages of understanding the reasons behind the rise in cases, however they have theorised it could be down to poor diets, physical inactivity and obesity.

Professor Charles Swanton, chief clinician of Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Over recent decades, there has been a clear increase in cancer incidence rates in young adults in the UK. Evidence suggests that more adults under 50 may be getting cancer than ever before.’

In addition to the research showcasing the stark rise in cases in the under-50s, the second biggest increase was among the under-25s. According to the analysis, their rate increased 16%, from 16.6 cases per 100,000 in 1995 to 19.2 in 2019.

Overall, the rate of cancer cases across all ages grew from 539 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 611.5 in 2019. That represents an uptick of 13% – almost half the growth rate among the under-50s. In individuals that are aged between 50 and 74, the incidence rate increased 14%, from 955.1 to 1,092. In the over-75s there was a 10% rise, from 2,259.7 cases per 100,000 people to 2,482.7 cases. It means the rate rise in the under-50s was more than double that of the over-75s.

Despite this worrying picture, experts have found that early onset cancer cases are still uncommon. Around 90% of all cancer affect people over the age of 50.

However, Swanton said: ‘Although these cases are a small proportion of the overall population and still relatively uncommon, the trend is important, and it requires further investigation.

‘Increased exposure to known as well as unknown cancer risk factors, changes to lifestyles and diets over time, and rising obesity may all contribute to the uptick in early-onset cancer.’

Likewise, Dr Aparna Parikh, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard medical school and an oncologist at Massachusetts general hospital, said at the ASCO conference: ‘We want to gain a deep mechanistic understanding of biological processes and environmental causes, and to do this we’re looking at a diverse set of data and patients from all around the world.’

Dr Parikh is also part of Team Prospect, an international research group funded by Cancer Research UK that is currently working to make sense of the spike in cases.

News of the research has come just after thousands of cancer patients in England have been chosen to trial personalised cancer vaccines following the launch of of a world-leading NHS trial ‘matchmaking’ service to help find new treatments. 

Image: National Cancer Institute

More on this topic: 

Cancer Research warns melanoma cases are rising in the UK

NHS HPV programme is preventing highest number of cervical cancer cases

Emily Whitehouse
Writer and journalist for Newstart Magazine, Social Care Today and Air Quality News.

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