American researchers see remarkable rise in cancer among younger patients

December 2020 Medical Research Willem van Altena
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Cancer is seen as a disease that mostly affects elderly adults, with many diagnoses made in people aged 60 or over. However, cancer cases in adolescents and young adults (AYAs) have risen by 30% during the last four decades, with kidney cancer rising at the greatest rate, according to researchers at Penn State College of Medicine (USA). The results were published on 1 December in JAMA Network Open in an article titled ‘Trends in Cancer Incidence in US Adolescents and Young Adults, 1973-2015’.

For AYA’s, cancer has emerged as the leading cause of disease-related death, dr. Nicholas Zaorsky notes. He is assistant professor of radiation oncology and public health sciences at Penn State, and he expresses concern at the increasing number of cases is concerning. He believes that AYAs should be seen as a specific group of cancer patients, presenting their own set of problems and demanding their own treatment strategies.


“Adolescents and young adults are a distinct cancer population,” Zaorsky says. “But they are often grouped together with pediatric or adult patients in research studies. It is important to study how this group is distinct so that care guidelines can be developed to address the increase in cases.”

For their research, the scientists from Penn State analysed data from nearly half a million cancer patients in the United States between 15 and 39 years old across more than four decades. The data were collected by the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program. The team’s goal was to determine the number of cancer cases in adolescents and young adults between 1973 and 2015.


Between 1973 and 2015, cancer diagnoses increased from 57 to 74 per 100,000 adolescents and young adults. The most common types in males were testicular, melanoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The most common types in females were breast, cervical and uterine cancers. Zaorsky also notes that the rates of kidney, thyroid and gastrointestinal cancers are increasing in this age group. “Other studies have shown these types are increasing among this age group. Our data reinforces the fact that clinicians should be on the lookout for these cancers in their adolescent and young adult patients.”

Further research

The researchers advocate further research to determine why specifically kidney, thyroid, gastrointestinal and other types of cancer are on the rise in AYAs. Zaorsky theorizes that possibly environmental, dietary and screening changes during the time period studied may have contributed to the increased incidences. “These cancers all have unique risk factors. Now that there is a better understanding of the types of cancer that are prevalent and rising in this age group, prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment protocols specifically targeted to this population should be developed.”


Scott AR, Stoltzfus KC, Tchelebi LT, et al. Trends in Cancer Incidence in US Adolescents and Young Adults, 1973-2015. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(12):e2027738. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.27738