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Early-Onset Cancer: Understanding the Recent Dramatic Rise

An image of a woman with early-onset cancer and a man kissing her forheadEarly-onset cancer describes cancers that occur in adults less than 50 years. While cancer can affect anyone, it is much more common in older adults. However, in recent decades, there has been an increase in the incidence of early-onset cancer. As you would imagine, this trend has caused a lot of worry in the medical world. One question on the lips of many is, “why?”

How Has Early-Onset Cancer Increased Globally?

Researchers have found that there has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of early-onset cancers, particularly since the 1990s. This is certainly something to worry about, considering the massive resources that have gone into the fight against cancer over the last few decades.

The researchers observed something called the birth cohort effect. This effect highlights the trends that effect successive groups of individuals born at a later time. For example, groups of individuals born ten years later exhibit an increased risk of having cancer later in their life. This may be because of certain risk factors the individuals were exposed to when they were young. In practical terms, people born in 1970 will have a higher risk of early-onset cancer than people born in 1960, and the trend continues with future generations.

The research team noted that the increased incidence of cancer in people less than 50 was partly due to earlier detection of cases. It was not clear how much influence early detection has on the trend, but it was not likely that early detection was the sole reason for the increasing incidence of early-onset cancer.

It is worth noting that early-onset cancers still only make up a tiny proportion of cancer cases recorded globally. In other words, the majority of cancer cases – over 90 percent – affect people over 50. Nonetheless, the trend of the increasing prevalence of cancer among people below 50 should be critically evaluated and analyzed.

Are Certain Types of Early-Onset Cancer Occurring More Frequently?

The research team that identified the increasing prevalence of early-onset cancer analyzed data from different types of cancer. These included breast cancer, colorectal cancer, endometrial cancer, esophageal adenocarcinoma, head and neck cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, stomach cancer, and thyroid cancer.

The data was collected from all over the world, and the incidence of these cancers, and different types of the same cancers, differs by region. For instance, gastric cancers can be classified as cardia and non-cardia, depending on the anatomic site it affects. Early-onset gastric non-cardia is common in Asia and Eastern Europe, while gastric cardia is common in North America and Western Europe.

This is also the trend with esophageal adenocarcinoma, which is more common in Western countries, whereas esophageal squamous cell carcinomas are more common in Asia and a few other geographical areas. Generally, in areas where a certain cancer is increasing, the incidence of that particular early-onset cancer will also be higher.

Still, colorectal cancer has been one with a significant increase in prevalence in individuals below the age of 50. This is likely because the risk factors of colorectal cancer, like poor diet and altered gut microbiome, have been among the most affected over the last few decades.

Possible Causes of Early-Onset Cancer

While researchers cannot say for sure the exact reason for the increased prevalence of early-onset cancer, several possible reasons have been identified. One thing researchers are confident about, though, is that the improved cancer screening programs over the last few decades have increased the chances of early detection of cancer.

Below, we examine other potential causes.


An image of an over weight man sitting on the couch as he eats unhealthy foodStudies show that obesity is linked with a higher risk of developing certain cancers, especially colorectal cancer. Others include multiple myeloma, uterine corpus, gallbladder, kidney, and pancreatic cancers.

Between 1975 and 2016, there was an increase in the prevalence of obesity among adolescents (5 to 19 years). For girls, the prevalence of obesity increased from 0.7 to 5.6 percent, while that range stands at 0.9 to 7.8 percent for boys. One study revealed a significant increase in 6 of 12 early-onset obesity-related cancers, and the increase got more significant with successive generations.


Over the last four decades, there has been a significant increase in the consumption of a Western-style diet, which is low in fruits and vegetables but consists of a lot of sugars, calories, fat, and sodium. An unhealthy diet is a risk factor for different cancers, including early-onset cancer.

Perhaps the most obvious effect of an unhealthy diet is the increased risk of obesity, but researchers have also found that an unhealthy diet can alter the gut microbiome. An altered gut microbiome is a risk factor for early-onset cancers, especially colorectal cancer.


Physical activity has decreased over the years among children and adolescents. Research reveals that the average sitting time has increased from five-and-a-half hours to six-and-a-half hours between 2007 and 2016. This can be attributed to the technology burst within that period.

A sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of obesity and also be detrimental to many organs in the body. This can exacerbate many health conditions, which can increase the risk of early-onset cancer.

Moreover, activities like smoking and drinking have dangerous effects on the body and can increase the risk of early-onset cancers. While smoking and drinking among adolescents have not significantly increased in the United States over the last few decades, the same cannot be said for other countries, especially low-income countries.

However, the abuse of medications has increased generally across the world in the last four decades. For instance, global antibiotic use among children less than five has increased from just under 10 doses per 1000 population daily in 2000 to more than 14 doses in 2018. Antibiotic use can alter the gut microbiome and increase the risk of more dangerous infections in the following generations.

Health Conditions

Certain health conditions can increase the risk of early-onset cancer, for example, diabetes mellitus, hepatitis, and human papillomavirus (HPV). Of these conditions, type 2 diabetes has significantly increased over the last few decades. While the global prevalence varies depending on region and age, the trend in most parts of the world is upwards. This is likely due to the increase in unhealthy sugary and processed foods.

Different health conditions can also result from an unhealthy diet, obesity, smoking, drinking, and a sedentary lifestyle. One such condition that may result from these factors is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), occurring when the body’s stress response cannot keep up with chronic stressors.

The body’s natural stress-coping mechanism is the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response, which consists of six circuits spanning several organs in the body. Adrenal fatigue can cause fatigue, inflammation, and weight gain, which can, in turn, increase the risk of early-onset cancers.

Prevention of Early-Onset Cancer

Researchers don’t know for sure the exact causes of early-onset cancer so prevention methods can be tricky to determine. However, here are a few practices that can help reduce the risk of early-onset cancer.

Early Screening

An image of a woman having a mamogram doneOne of the main reasons for the dramatic rise in cancer in adults less than 50 is early detection. Cancer screening programs have gotten better in the last few years, and this corresponds to more early detections. If cancer screening is early enough, it is possible to prevent early-onset cancers from developing altogether.

Improved Diet Plans

An unhealthy diet is one of the risk factors of early-onset cancer, as it can increase the risk of obesity, alter the gut microbiome, and worsen certain health conditions, like Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Therefore, one of the best ways to prevent early-onset cancers is to switch to a healthier diet. This consists of more fruits and vegetables, and less processed foods and sugar.

Lifestyle Changes

Changes in lifestyle cuts across different areas. This includes adopting a healthier diet, stopping smoking and drinking, being more physically active, sleeping sufficiently, and living in environments that are less exposed to dangerous pollutants. All of these changes can reduce the risk of early-onset cancer and the general health of the individual.

Extensive Research

While researchers have found that there is an increasing prevalence of early-onset cancer and even identified some possible causes, there is a lot we still don’t know. More research is necessary to understand the different causes and the degree of influence of these causes. Also, research is needed to obtain data from populations that have not been studied.


Researchers have found that there has been a dramatic rise in early-onset cancer over the last three decades. While potential causes like lifestyle and certain health conditions have been identified, there are still plenty researchers don’t understand. Therefore, more research in this area is necessary, coupled with better education programs by experts.

To improve your risk factors, your best bet is to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods, get more exercise and sleep, and avoid toxins.

For more information about early-onset cancer, the team at Dr. Lam Coaching can help. We offer a free, no-obligation phone consultation at +1 (626) 571-1234 where we will privately discuss your symptoms and various options. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by clicking here.

© Copyright 2023 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Early detection through advanced cancer screening programs is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the observed rise in early-onset cancer. However, it is far from the sole reason. There are other potential causes, like diet, lifestyle, obesity, and health conditions that researchers have identified in studies of early-onset cancer.

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