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The Twelve Most Common Cancers Affecting Young People


Growing older is one risk factor that increases the chance of getting cancer. However, cancer can strike younger people as well. The National Cancer Institute has release new statistics about cancer in adolescents and young adults and gives information on how to improve care for these patients.

Nearly 68,400 adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 39 were diagnosed with cancer in 2009. Within this age group, cancer incidence has increased dramatically, but unfortunately, survival rates for young people with cancer have not improved in almost 30 years. Factors related to this included delayed diagnosis, poor understanding of the biology and etiology of the cancers of this population, inadequate access to clinical trials, and the unique psychosocial and supportive care needs of the younger population.

The most common types of cancer seen in cancers and young adults are lymphoma, leukemia, germ cell tumors (including testicular cancer), melanoma, central nervous system tumors, sarcomas, and breast, cervical, liver, thyroid and colorectal cancers.

Brain and Other Central Nervous System Tumors
A brain tumor is defined as a growth of abnormal cells in the tissues of the brain. In 2013, there will be an estimated 23,103 new cases of brain and nervous system cancers in the United States. Brain and spinal cord cancers are the third most common type of childhood cancer, after leukemia and lymphoma. The cause of most childhood brain and spinal cord tumors is unknown.

Symptoms for this type of cancer can be different for each patient. The most common symptoms for brain tumors include morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting; frequent nausea and vomiting; vision, hearing and speech problems; loss of balance and trouble walking; unusual sleepiness or change in activity level; unusual changes in personality or behavior; seizures; and increase in head size (in infants). Spinal cord tumor symptoms include back pain or pain that spreads from the back towards the arms or legs; a change in bowel habits or trouble urinating; weakness in the legs; and trouble walking.

Breast Cancer
It is estimated that there will be 232,340 new cases of female breast cancer in the United States in 2013. Although much more rare, there will likely also be 2,240 new cases of male breast cancer as well. For the most part, breast cancer occurs in older women, but approximately 1.8% of cases between 2005 and 2009 occurred in those between the ages of 20 and 34.

Unfortunately, according to a clinical study published in the journal Cancer, women 30 and under diagnosed with breast cancer have a poorer prognosis for survival than their older counterparts following standard therapies. The reason: younger women tend to have more aggressive forms of the disease.

Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is cancer that forms in the tissues of the cervix – the organ connecting the uterus and vagina. It is usually a slow-growing cancer that may not have symptoms, but can be found with regular Pap tests. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, spread mainly through sexual contact. Women who become sexually active at a young age and who have many sexual partners are at a greater risk of HPV infection and developing cervical cancer.

Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke also increase the risk of cervical cancer. Among women infected with HPV, dysplasia (a precancerous condition) and invasive cancer occur 2 to 3 times more often in current and former smokers.

Colorectal Cancer
Although most colorectal cancer cases occur in adults over the age of 50, cancer cases in adults younger than 50 have increased since 1998. Cancers of the colon and rectum are now the second leading cause of death from cancer in the United States.

Having a parent, brother, or sister with colorectal cancer doubles a person’s risk of having the disease themselves. A personal history of inflammatory bowel disease also increases risk. Three preventable risk factors include smoking, excessive alcohol intake, and obesity.

Germ Cell Tumors – including Testicular Cancer
Germ cells are the cells in the body that develop into sperm and eggs. They are mainly found in the ovary or testicle. Sometimes, however, they can sometimes be left behind in other parts of the body from when you developed in the womb, such as in the chest (mediastinum), brain, or at the back of the abdomen (retroperitoneal cancer).

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The most common germ cell tumors are teratomas or seminomas of the testicle in men. Women can develop ovarian germ cell tumors, most of which are benign, but about 1 to 2% are cancerous.

Testicular cancer is most common in young or middle-aged men. Risk factors include having had an undescended testicle, having had abnormal development of the testicles, having a personal or family history of testicular cancer, and being white.

Leukemia is a cancer that starts in the blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of blood cells to be produced and enter the blood stream.

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common type of cancer in children. Risk factors for ALL include being exposed to xrays before birth, being exposed to radiation, past treatment with chemotherapy, having certain changes in the genes, and certain genetic conditions such as Down syndrome. Should you suspect something is wrong with your child, see a doctor as soon as possible. ALL worsens quickly if not treated.

Liver Cancer
Childhood liver cancer is a disease in which malignant cells form in the tissues of the liver. It is rare in children and teens. The two main types of childhood liver cancer include hepatoblastoma (a type that usually does not spread outside the liver and usually affects children younger than 3 years of age) and hepatocellular carcinoma (a type more common to older children and teens). Symptoms include a painless lump in the abdomen, swelling or pain in the abdomen, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, and nausea and vomiting.

Lymphoma is a cancer that originates in the body’s lymphatic tissues, which include the lymph nodes, thymus, spleen, tonsils, adenoids and bone marrow. About 1,700 kids younger than 20 years old are diagnosed with lymphoma each year in the US. There are two main categories of lymphoma: Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Together, they are the second most common type of cancer in children.

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma affects about 3 out of every 100,000 Americans most commonly during early and late adulthood (between ages 15 and 40 and after age 55). The first symptom is often a painless enlargement of the lymph nodes located in the neck, above the collarbone, in the underarm area or in the groin.

There are about 500 new cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosed each year in kids in the US. It may occur at any age, but is rare before age 3. In NHL, there is a malignant growth of specific types of lymphocytes, a kind of white blood cell. Possible signs and symptoms include trouble breathing, wheezing, coughing, high-pitched breathing sounds, swelling of the head, neck or upper body, trouble swallowing, unexplained weight loss and night sweats.

Melanoma is a skin cancer that is quite aggressive. Although most common in adults, it is sometimes found in children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 years. Risk factors include having fair complexion, being exposed to natural or artificial sunlight (such as tanning beds), having several moles, or having a family history of the disease. The best way to prevent melanoma is to protect the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation by wearing protective sunscreen, not being in the sun for long periods of time especially when the sun is strongest, and wearing protective clothing when outdoors.

Sarcoma cancers make up about 15% of all childhood cancers. It originates in a variety of tissue structures, including nerves, muscles, joints, bone, fat, and blood vessels. They can occur anywhere in the body but the most frequent location is the limbs since this is where the majority of the body’s connective tissue resides.

There are many “subtypes” of sarcoma, but the five main types affecting children and young adults include bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma, Childhood rhabdomyosarcoma, soft tissue sarcoma and uterine sarcoma. Approximately 14,000 new cases are diagnosed each year (for all age groups).

Thyroid Cancer
Cancer that forms in the thyroid gland is called thyroid cancer. This organ, found at the base of the throat, makes hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and weight. There are about 60,220 new cases of thyroid cancer in the US each year.

Thyroid cancer most often occurs in women between the ages of 25 and 65 years old. Being exposed to radiation to the head and neck as a child increases the risk of developing the disease. Asians are also at a greater risk for thyroid cancer. Possible signs include a lump in the neck, trouble breathing, trouble swallowing or hoarseness.

Information about the Children’s Oncology Group (COG)
The National Cancer Institute sponsors the Children’s Oncology Group, a network of hospitals and research centers that offer clinical trials for children and adolescents with cancer. For more information visit www.cancer.gov.