Cancer in Young People

As a young adult, I often find it easy to detach myself from cancer risk statistics. After all, cancer diagnoses in young people (15-24 years) only account for 1% of all new cancer cases a year in the UK1. Even though this sounds like a small percentage, there are still around 2,500 new cancer cases in young people every year in the UK, that’s about 7 every day1. More than half of all young people’s cancers are diagnosed in those aged 20-24 years. 

Risk Factors 
Cancer risk in young people can be related to environmental factors, such as UV exposure, as well as certain infections, for example HPV (Human papillomavirus) infection and its link with cervical cancer2. There are also genetic conditions that may predispose people to certain cancer types, such as bowel and thyroid cancer1. However, the evidence for these risks in most cases is unclear. 

Since the 1990s cancer rates in young people in the UK have increased –  40% for women and 17% for men1One of the suggested reasons behind this increase is the growing prevalence of obesity within our population2. Obesity is known to increase the risk of at least 13 different types of cancer. This is because fat cells can release biological signals that increase the chance of cancer cell development3. 

Types of Cancer in Young People 

The three most common cancer types in young people are lymphomas, carcinomas and germ cell tumours4.


Lymphomas – cancer that starts in the lymph glands or an organ of the lymphatic system, which is a system that removes toxins from the body and transports infection-fighting white blood cells (lymph) around the body12. 
Carcinomas – cancers that originate from epithelial tissues, which are tissues that cover the body and line organs and body cavities. There are different types of carcinomas dependent on the type of cell that makes up the tissue12. 
Germ cell tumours – the term “germ cells” refers to cells that create sperm or eggs and are most likely found in the ovaries or testicles 13; most germ cell tumours originate in the ovary or testicle. 

 

The rates of cancer types are seen in the bar chart below.

 

Young People’s Cancers by Cancer Type, Average Number of New Cases per Year, Ages 15-24, UK, 2000-2009

Credit: Cancer Research UK.

One of the biggest differences in the cancer rates observed in young people is the high number of carcinomas in females, and high number of germ cell tumours in males.
Most cases of female carcinoma is cervical cancer, followed by other cancer types such as thyroid, ovarian and breast4. 
Almost all incidences of germ cell tumours in young people are cases of testicular cancer in males4.
The numbers of malignant melanoma (skin cancer) cases observed in young people is often attributed to our culture of sunbed use within the UK5. 

 

Survival Rates in Young People 

Sadly, there are around 270-310 cancer deaths in young people in the UK every year1,11, with leukaemia being the most common cause1. 

However, cancer survival rates have significantly improved over recent years, with more than 8 in 10 young people diagnosed with cancer surviving their disease for five years or more1. 

 

Screening 

Currently, there are no national cancer screening programs offered to people under the age of 25. From the age of 25, women and people with a cervix are invited to attend cervical cancer screening appointments every 3 yearswhere a test for HPV infection and abnormal cervical cells is carried out6. Cervical cancer rates in young women and people with a cervix increase rapidly from the age of 19, a likely association between sexual activity and HPV infection. Whilst screening is routinely offered to over 25s, if you are under 25 and display any signs or symptoms associated with cervical cancer you should consult your GP and you may be offered a test7. 

 

Signs and Symptoms of Cancer8 

Move through the images below to see the signs and symptoms of different cancer types.

How to Check Yourself9 

Check Your Neck 

Using the tips of your fingers, feel your neck starting behind the ears, move down to your jaw and then down the sides of your neck. Check all the way down to your collarbone, just below the bottom of your neck. Make sure to check both sides for comparison. 

Check Your Breasts and Chest 

Using your fingertips, work around your breast or chest area. Move in a circular motion, checking each section before moving onto the nextDo both sides of your chest individually, checking or comparing any differences. You can do this in the shower, or when looking in a mirror to see any visual differences you might not have felt. 

Check Your Moles
  

Keep a look out for any changes to existing moles, or the appearance of any new ones. Taking pictures of any that concern you will help you identify changes.  

Check Your Testicles
 

Do this when you are standing up and warm, a good place is usually in the shower or after a bath. Get familiar with them to know what is normal for you. Roll each testicle individually between your finger and thumb, they should be almost the same size and weight. To check the weight, you can cup your hands under them to see how they feel. 

 

Many of the changes that happen to our bodies are normal and often nothing to worry about. However, no one knows your body better than you. If you find something new, or feel different in a way that you can’t explain, don’t ignore it. It’s always best to contact your GP. 

 

If you are concerned about any of the signs and symptoms discussed in this post, or just want to find out more on this topic, there are some fantastic resources at the websites below: 

  • Cancer Research UK1 

  • Cancer Awareness for Teens and Twenties (CATTs)9  

  • Teenagers and Young Adults with Cancer (TYAC)11 

  • NHS UK

  • Macmillan Cancer Support10  

  • Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust7

  • Coppafeel14 

 

~This article was written by Katie Sadler on behalf of the LIVE with Scientists team. All views belong solely to the author. ~ 

 

  1. Brown, K.F., Rumgay, H., Dunlop, C. et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. Br J Cancer 118, 1130–1141 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41416-018-0029-6. 

  1. Cancer Research UK, [https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/young-people-cancers/incidence#ref-1]- Data provided by Public Health England, accessed May 2021. 

  1. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, [https://www.jostrust.org.uk/], accessed May 2021. 

  1. NHS, UK. [https://www.nhs.uk/conditions], accessed May 2021. 

  1. CATTs – Cancer Awareness for Teens and Twenties, [https://wearecatts.co.uk/], accessed May 2021. 

  1. Teenagers and Young Adults with Cancer, [https://www.tyac.org.uk/], accessed May 2021. 

  1. Cancer Research UK, [https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/germ-cell-tumours], accessed May 2021. 

  2. Coppafeel, [https://coppafeel.org], accessed May 2021.