Cancer Rates In Young People

Explaining the recent news about more cancer in people under 50

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd


Pictured: Cancer. Specifically, according to the source, colorectal cancer cells. Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

This week, there have been a swathe of scary new headlines about cancer in young people. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, rates of cancer in people under the age of 50 have been skyrocketing over the last decade, a trend that is as mysterious as it is scary.

But if you read the underlying research, the story isn’t so much scary as it is fascinating. This is the sort of research that is incredibly useful for public health experts, but it doesn’t necessarily mean all that much to the average person.

This was the first result when I searched “average person”, and based on the moustache alone I had to include him. Photo by swapnil lokhande on Unsplash

Let me explain.

The Research

The study that’s been causing all of these scary headlines is a fairly simple epidemiological paper looking at cancer diagnoses in the United States from 2010–2019. The authors took a large national database of cancer diagnoses across the US, and used this to calculate the yearly incidence — an epidemiological term meaning new diagnoses — per year, and then looked at the trends by type of cancer and demographic information for people under the age of 50.

What they found was that, between 2010 and 2019, there was a yearly increase in the incidence of all cancers in this age group. In 2010, about 100 people per 100,000 aged 0–49 were diagnosed with a new case of cancer, and by 2019 this had increased to 103 per 100,000. This was calculated as an annual 0.28% increase in the rate of any cancer diagnosis in young people in the US.

This is actually not a new finding. There have been a number of studies showing that certain types of cancer — particularly cancers in the gastrointestinal tract — have been on the increase in younger people for some time. We’ve seen rises across the world in young people for colorectal cancer, for example, for a while already.

And that’s where all of the scary headlines are coming from — young people today are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than they were a decade ago. That’s certainly an issue, but there’s some important context that’s worth noting…