Early onset cancer on the rise: trends, causes and prevention

May 17, 2024

In recent media cycles, there has been significant coverage focused on the rise in cancer cases among younger adults. It’s important to understand the complexities of this trend and what might be driving it, so people can be aware of their risks and take charge of their health.


Rates on the Rise

In certain countries, such as the United States, we have seen a steady decline in total cancer-related deaths within the past decade. This is thanks to successful public health efforts such as increased screening and campaigns to help people quit smoking. However, while cancer deaths are decreasing, various reports have shown that the number of new cancer cases annually is actually trending upwards- from 1.9 million in 2022 to over 2 million in 20231.


One factor contributing to this increase is the rise in early-onset cancer cases. While early-onset cancers (defined as those that occur in adults under the age of 50) only make up a small proportion of cancer cases nationally, their incidence is steadily growing. Since 1994, we’ve observed a 1-2% increase in early-onset cancer diagnoses each year1. This steady escalation in cancer diagnoses poses a significant health concern for younger populations across the nation.


Globally, these early-onset cancers often affect the digestive system, with sharp increases seen in colorectal, pancreatic, and stomach cancer rates. In the US, uterine cancer has risen 2% annually since the mid-1990s among adults under 50, while early-onset breast cancer increased by 3.8% yearly from 2016 to 20192.


Understanding the Causes

So, why are we seeing this trend? The answer is complex and there are various factors at play. One such factor is the expansion of screening and diagnostic programs targeting individuals under the age of 50, resulting in cancer diagnoses at younger ages. For instance, in the United States, there has been a recent decrease in the recommended screening age for colorectal cancer to 45 and for breast cancer to 40, reflecting efforts to detect these cancers earlier in younger populations.


However, there’s more to it than just increased screening. One concept that can help us dive deeper into the issue is the idea of the exposome. An individual’s exposome encompasses the entirety of the environmental factors they encounter throughout their lifetime. This includes their dietary habits, lifestyle choices, exposure to pollutants, and even the microorganisms inhabiting their body3. Understanding the early-life exposome can provide valuable insights into how these factors interact and contribute to cancer risk. Factors such as the rise in processed foods, exposure to pollutants, increase in chronic diseases, and physical inactivity in younger populations all play a role in their susceptibility to cancer.


It is equally important to acknowledge the role of hereditary factors involved in an individual’s risk for developing cancer. While approximately 10% of the 2 million annual cancer cases in the United States have a hereditary component, 21% percent of patients with early-onset cancer have an inherited genetic mutation4. Genetic testing to identify mutations in cancer susceptibility genes can identify those who are at risk, help direct therapies for people who have cancer, and help people who are unaffected take preventative measures to avoid a cancer diagnosis.


Moving Forward

It is reassuring to know that rates of cancer deaths in many countries are declining. Routine cancer screenings, healthy lifestyle choices and cancer genetic testing are all essential tools in our arsenal for proactive cancer prevention. Learn more about cancer genetic testing at https://www.jscreen.org/learn-more-about-cancer-screening/


  1. https://www.cancer.org/research/cancer-facts-statistics/all-cancer-facts-figures.html
  2. https://www.phi.org/press/what-data-says-about-rising-cancer-rates-among-youth/
  3. https://archive.cdc.gov/www_cdc_gov/niosh/topics/exposome/default.html
  4. https://www.aacr.org/about-the-aacr/newsroom/news-releases/young-adults-with-cancer-may-harbor-germline-mutations/

Headquartered in Atlanta at Emory University’s Department of Human Genetics, JScreen is a national non-profit offering at-home comprehensive and affordable genetic testing and counseling.

ReproGEN – determines risk for having a child with a genetic disease

CancerGEN – tests for genetic changes that increase risk for many types of cancer

If a person or couples’ risk is elevated, genetic counselors will privately address the results, options and resources to help plan for a healthy future.

JScreen believes that a combination of education, access to state-of-the-art testing technology, and personalized support by qualified medical professionals are key to preventing devastating genetic diseases.