Why are cancer rates rising in younger people?

Plus, science-backed ways to help lower your risk.

Cancer is often thought of as a disease that strikes when you’re older. But more and more, it’s becoming a young person’s disease as well. The rate of early onset cancer — meaning cancer that’s diagnosed in someone before they reach age 50 — is on the rise in America and around the world. One recent study found a 30% jump in cancer diagnoses among those aged 15 to 39 between 1973 and 2015.

A second study revealed the types of cancer that are becoming more common in younger age groups. They include:

  • Colorectal.
  • Breast.
  • Kidney.
  • Pancreas.
  • Uterine.

The big question: Why are cancer rates rising in younger people?

“There are many causes of cancer. But more than 70% of cancers are linked to environmental causes, diet, and lifestyle,” says William Li, M.D. Dr. Li is the president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation in Boston and author of Eat to Beat Disease. “The rise in cancer among younger people is almost certainly tied to these factors. Our environment is steadily degrading. Our diet has for decades been poor. And we live in a world that is getting less sleep and less physical activity. These are all forces that are known to promote cancer.”

While we can’t completely control our environment, we do have the power to lower our cancer risk. Here are 8 steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing cancer at a young age.

1. Stay Up to Date on All Your Screenings

“Mammograms, Pap smears, and colonoscopies all help catch cancers earlier,” says Dr. Li. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends these cancer screenings in younger adults:

  • Cervical cancer testing beginning at age 25, with a human papillomavirus test every 5 years.
  • Annual mammogram starting at age 45, with the option to begin at age 40.
  • Colon cancer screening starting at age 45. There are several different test options, including stool-based tests (done every 1 to 3 years) as well as a colonoscopy every 10 years.

If you have a family history of certain cancers, such as colon or breast cancer, talk to your doctor about starting screenings even earlier, says Sharlene Gill, M.D. Dr. Gill is a medical oncologist at the University of British Columbia.

2. Limit How Much Alcohol You Drink

Alcohol is directly linked to more than 400,000 cancer deaths each year, especially colon and breast cancer. The ACS suggests that men have no more than 2 drinks a day. For women, the guidance is no more than 1 a day.

3. Get Good-Quality Sleep

Research suggests that both too little sleep and poor-quality sleep can raise the risk of developing cancer. Aim to get the recommended 7 to 8 hours a day. For better-quality sleep, turn off your screens at least an hour before bed. (The blue light from digital screens wakes up your brain.)

4. Don’t Smoke

Lung cancer isn’t the only cancer linked with lighting up. Other cancers caused by smoking include:

  • Liver.
  • Bladder.
  • Kidney.
  • Pancreas.
  • Lymphoma.

Need some help kicking the habit? Many health plans offer guided smoking cessation programs at no extra cost to members. To learn more, reach out to your care advocate. It’s easy to connect if you have a digital health management app like Wellframe. If you’re a former smoker, here are 5 things you should know about reducing your risk for other smoking-related illness.

5. Stay at a Healthy Weight

Being overweight or obese is linked with a higher risk of 13 different types of cancer. That includes the top 3 cancers on the rise in younger people: breast, colon, and kidney. In fact, these cancers make up 40% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States each year.

The good news: If you lose extra pounds, you’ll significantly lower your cancer risk. In 1 study, obese adults who underwent weight loss surgery and lost about 55 pounds had a 32% lower risk of developing cancer, compared with obese people who didn’t have the surgery. They also had a 48% lower risk of dying from the disease.

Of course, you don’t have to have surgery to reach your healthy-weight goals. Diet and lifestyle changes can be very effective. This is another area where your health plan may be able to help. Many have weight loss programs and other behavioral health plans.

To learn more ways to get the most out of your healthcare, reach out to your health insurance provider.

6. Eat a Plant-Based Diet

That means cutting out or back on animal products like meat and dairy and focusing on fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and seeds, says Dr. Li. People who eat more plants and fewer animal-based proteins have a lower risk of cancer overall. In particular, a diet high in fiber and low in red meat (beef, pork, lamb) has been shown to lower the risk of colon cancer, says Dr. Gill.

7. Stay Active

Getting 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity activity per week (or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous activity) lowers the risk of developing 7 different types of cancer:

  • Breast.
  • Endometrial.
  • Kidney.
  • Myeloma.
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Liver.
  • Colon

What qualifies as moderate activity? Any activity that gets your heart pumping counts, such as fast walking, bicycling, playing tennis, and mowing the lawn.

8. Take Time for Yourself

One more reason to keep your stress levels in check: Research has found a link between chronic stress and cancer development. To take the edge off, make time for things that give you pleasure. Maybe that’s spending time with friends or family or taking a weekly yoga class.

Short on time? Try this quick deep-breathing exercise:

  • Inhale through your nose for 4 counts.
  • Hold your breath for 7 counts.
  • Exhale for 8 counts.

This “4-7-8” breathing technique helps calm your body’s fight-or-flight response. In other words, within a few short, measured breaths, you could feel less frazzled — and possibly lower your risk of cancer at the same time.

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