People are freaking over a 'rise in cancer in young people' - but that's not the full story

woman with bald head suffering from cancer ready to leave hospital after chemotherapy
A rise in cancer in young people - the full storySlavica - Getty Images

In all honestly, the news cycle can feel very bleak sometimes, with it often seeming like the bad news far outweighs the good. And, thanks to the recent 'alarming' study detailing the rise in cancer in young people, it's no surprise the public is branding it as the cherry on top of an already - quite frankly - very disappointing cake.

To explain, scientists from the University of Edinburgh and the Zhejiang University School of Medicine in China have revealed that global cancer cases among young people have increased by 79%. This huge growth has been attributed to a number of factors (aside from genetics), which include unhealthy lifestyle choices like obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption.

The team behind the research published in BMJ Oncology used data from the 2019 Global Burden of Disease study, which analysed 29 different cancers in 204 countries and regions. As per the study, scientists then estimated the increase in rates between 1990 and 2019 for those aged below 50.

However, we're now coming in hot with the full story to let you know that it's not panic central just yet, as we've spoken to experts who have cautioned against reading too much into the research. They pointed out that UK rates actually stabilised from 2010 to 2019, plus, that early-onset cancer mortality rates were "steadily decreasing".

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Are cancer cases really rising?

While obviously still taking into account that an unhealthy lifestyle can increase your risk of developing cancer, Dr Gareth Nye BSc (Hons), PhD, FHEA, MHFA, Programme Lead for Medical Science (BMedSci) at Chester Medical School wants people to be aware of "misleading" headlines.

"Yes, the study published in the British Medical Journals Oncology section is a highly important one, but it took data from over 200 countries from hugely differing social economic backgrounds," he explains.

"With this comes huge advances in healthcare systems, particularly in detection rates of a number of cancers. So although the headline states a rise of over 70% in cancer rates over the last decade, we may be seeing an increase in detection in countries lagging behind the curve."

In addition, Dr Nye reminds us that the world's population has grown some 40% over this same time period, with people living longer due to a better understanding of healthcare risks and better healthcare generally. Dr Sam, Doctor of Cancer Research at Dr Andre Extensa Clinic also notes that the study indicates that treatments for early-onset cancers are very effective.

"This can be further seen in the statement that the UK cancer rates have stabilised and may even be decreasing," Dr Nye outlines. "This comes from decades of work on prevention, identification and treatment, and this decrease can be seen across Europe".

Elsewhere, Dr Sam zooms in on the scale of the study, emphasising that it covers 30 years of data. Which - in her expert opinion - means that further examination and research will be needed to come to definite conclusions.

She explains that (of course) the rise in cancer rates in under 50s is obviously of concern, but "while the cause of the increase in younger cancer cases will be partly genetics, there will certainly be a place for poor diet, low exercise and environmental factors contributing to early onset cancer".

Oxana Polyakova, cancer researcher and Chief Scientific Officer at LlfT Bio Services adds to this, outlining that "whilst it has been reported that incidents of cancer are rising among young people, there are many factors that have been found to heighten vulnerability to early onset cancers – age is not a risk factor in and of itself."

These trends and patterns are multifactorial, she explains, and encompass various lifestyle factors (like the aforementioned).

So rather than us all feeling complete doom and gloom, Dr Sam advises that we should be pressing the message for a good, healthy, low processed and varied diet with exercise, good sleep and a cleaner environment.

Now, we also have to acknowledge that even if you don't smoke, drink and lead a typically healthy lifestyle, sadly there's no foolproof way of ever avoiding certain diseases. But choosing to live your life in ways that benefit your body (such as avoiding the above and ticking off the lifestyle factors advised by the professionals), is something that any health expert would recommend.

mid adult woman chopping ingredients for meal, standing behind kitchen worktop
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And a quick note from Dr Nye before we head to FitTok, stock up on fruit and veggies, and quit watching Netflix until three in the morning:

"This study is still important and everyone should be aware of their particular risk factors. While reducing BMI, alcohol intake, smoking and fatty foods can all significantly lower your risk of developing cancer, people should be aware of the signs and symptoms of early-stage cancers so that treatment can be started at the earliest opportunity."

"Although the risk of cancer death is better in the UK than in other countries, we still need to be proactive in how we deal with the disease," he concludes.

Hopefully, this has decreased your stress levels and you feel comfortably reassured in the knowledge that these stats aren't actually as scary as they sound...

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