April 16, 2024

Prof Andrew Beggs of the University of Birmingham runs a special clinic for young people with cancer and has noticed, like other experts, that more and more people under the age of 45 are being diagnosed with some form of the condition.

“There are a number of reasons for this rise,” he told the Observer. “For one thing, we’re simply getting better at spotting cancer at earlier and earlier stages. There is special awareness involved. Young people are much more attentive to their health than previous generations and are therefore more willing to seek help at an early stage when their symptoms first appear.”

This is good news, say scientists. If a cancer is left untreated for too long, it can spread throughout a patient’s body, with fatal consequences. “Spotting a cancer at an early stage means that treatment is more likely to be successful,” says Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK.

The fact that young people are more willing to come forward for diagnosis and treatment also reflects the significant improvements that have been made in the treatment of cancer in recent decades. “People no longer see cancer as an inevitable death sentence, as previous generations did,” Beggs added. “Today it is seen as something that can often be cured. It gives them further impetus to come forward.”

Another factor involved in the increase in cancers in younger individuals is inherited predisposition to conditions such as colon and breast cancer. Susceptibility to some of these can be passed down through families, and the genes responsible can build up in populations as carriers live longer and have more children. “It is a selection process. People survive longer to pass these genetic changes down through the generations,” Beggs said.

In addition, there is the prospect that some as yet undetected environmental factors may influence cancer rates. Rising levels of obesity, for example, cause rising cancer rates. In contrast, the sharp decline in smoking seen over the past 50 years has resulted in a large drop in case numbers.

The good news for younger patients is that they can tolerate higher doses of chemotherapy than older patients, and therefore can be given stronger treatment regimens that are more likely to kill any cancer cells that remain in their bodies. Prof Lawrence Young from Warwick University said: “Cancer survival is generally higher in younger people. In addition, an incidental finding of cancer during surgery for other conditions is often associated with the tumor being detected at an early stage, when subsequent chemotherapy is much more effective.”

However, the major improvements in detecting cancers at an early stage have been introduced less effectively in the UK than in other countries, according to Beggs. “Take colon cancer. If you live in the US or Europe and you show early symptoms, you will get a colonoscopy very quickly, whereas in the UK there is likely to be a significant delay,” said Beggs. “We need to make real improvements at this stage.”

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