Reports Show that Early-Onset Cancer is on the Rise

A recent study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed a noticeable rise in early-onset cancer diagnosis, which it defined as individuals younger than 50.

The study was conducted between 2010 and 2019 and showed cancer rates increased overall in individuals age 20-50. The trend was driven primarily by women, with breast cancer diagnosis being the most prevalent. [1] The Washington Post reported that breast cancer mortality rates for women older than 50 declined during the study period, while mortality rates for younger women did not. [2]

Between 2010 and 2019, overall cancer rates rose 19.4 percent in people age 30-39 and 5.3 percent in those age 20-29, while incidents of cancer decreased in those age 50.

Breast cancer had the highest number of incidents. The organ systems with the fastest rate of increase were in gastrointestinal cancers, followed by urinary system and female reproductive cancers. [3]

Among the most common gastrointestinal cancers were the appendix, colorectal, pancreas, and intrahepatic bile duct. [1]

The most common decrease in cancer by organ system were respiratory, male reproductive, and brain and nervous system. [1]

Study Methods

The study identified 562,145 early-onset cancer patients based on population data from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER). The SEER program collects population-based data on cancer incidence in the United States. The database is a network of tumor registries from various geographically distinct regions within the country. It contains representative data for the racial and ethnic diversity in the United States. [1]

The study evaluated various demographic characteristics, including age, gender, and ethnicity.

Overall, during the study period, the incidence of early-onset cancers increased most for American Indian or Alaska natives, Asian or Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics. Rates were steady for Caucasian patients and declined among African-American patients. [1]

Other Research

In an article published in Health Hunters in April 2022, Dr. Ron Hunninghake, MD and Riordan Clinic Chief Medical Officer, noted that another study conducted by the U.S. National Cancer Database between 2004 and 2015 found at the time colorectal cancer was the third most common cancer in patients age 50 and younger, with the incident of diagnosis increasing more than 2 percent during the study. [4]

That study also linked the prevalence of colorectal cancer to ethnicity, noting that rates were 20 percent higher in African Americans than non-Hispanic Caucasians. [4]

A study by researchers at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and published last year by Harvard University showed similar findings but evaluated trends from the previous 30 years. It showed that early-onset cancer had risen dramatically worldwide since 1990, with the most common types in their findings being breast, colon, esophagus, kidney, liver, and pancreas. Unlike the JAMA study, which focused on the United States, the Brigham and Women’s study included global participants. [5] A recent Global Burden of Disease study showed the highest rates of early-onset cancer when standardized by age were in countries with a high sociodemographic index – particularly in North America.

Possible Causes

Although JAMA’s study didn’t point to a single cause for the rise in early-onset cancer, it suggested possibilities, including increasing obesity rates, changes in environmental exposures such as smoke and gasoline, sleep patterns, physical activity, microbiota, and transient exposure to carcinogenic compounds. [1]

Dr. Ron said colon, breast, and pancreatic cancers are the most sugar-sensitive, which is linked to diet and obesity. In his April 2022 article, he also stated that elevated levels of certain microbes and low microbial diversity are associated with greater cancer risk. The pervasive use of glyphosate on crops and lawns has resulted in widespread contamination of common foods and drinking water. It also interferes with the Shikimate Pathway in gut bacteria, further eroding a healthy gut biome. [4]

Dr. Kirsten West, ND, LAc, FABNO, agreed.

“I think there are many causes for this including, but not limited to, lack of physical activity and movement, exposure to environmental toxins, intake of refined and processed foods (including sugar substitutes), and decreased physical community connection due to social media exposure. We are social creatures and are meant to be around and with others. The mind/body connection is a big one. Several studies have shown social connection to have a role in overall health,” she said.

“Additionally, disturbance to our microbiome also matters. We are meant to be around dirt and to commune with the earth. Children who grow up without dishwashers and with pets may have a healthier immune system in the long run. Stress, disturbance of circadian rhythms, and poor meal timing also matter. We are meant to fast and eat based on a biological rhythm. We have gotten far from the latter with the emergence of technology,” she added.

The Brigham and Women’s study also found a generational impact, which it labeled the “birth cohort effect.” It showed that the risk of developing cancer increases about every decade. For example, people born in 1960 were at a higher risk of developing cancer before age 50 than someone born in 1950. Researchers suggested that increasing exposure to cancer risk factors early in life will cause the risk of cancer diagnosis to increase in successive generations.

Success Stories

Health Hunter readers have learned the personal stories of several patients, including two who received a cancer diagnosis before age 40.

Jamie Bernard is a two-time cancer survivor who received her first diagnosis at age 31. She has shared her story on her Instagram account @cansurvivegal. She recently updated her status after learning that her tumor markers are normal and making progress toward getting rid of the circulating tumor cells in her bloodstream. She recently married her fiancé, Nick Constantine.

“Counting your blessings is important, and I’m sure counting them tonight. If you’re reading this post, you have had a special place in my life and in my heart, and I thank you for that,” Jamie wrote.

Meredith Trexler Drees was 38 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2021. At the time, she was newly tenured as a professor of religion at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina and preparing for a one-year research fellowship at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. By March of 2021, she was told the cancer had metastasized to stage 4. She had conventional treatments but began naturopathic treatments also. At her six-month scan she showed no signs of cancer.

Today, Meredith has returned to Kansas Wesleyan to resume teaching. She takes semi-regular maintenance treatments in the Wichita clinic. She and her husband, Jeff, live in Lindsborg, Kansas, with their dogs.

“Since I had this experience, I owe it to the world to do whatever I can to spread awareness. I made it, and that’s amazing. Now, what’s just as important is paying it forward and helping other people to heal,” she said.


Jama Network, Accessed 6 Sept. 2023.

“More Young Women Are Getting Breast Cancer. They Want Answers.” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!, Accessed 6 Sept. 2023.

Bose, Dr. Priyom. “What Are the Patterns in the Incidence of Early-Onset Cancers?” News, 21 Aug. 2023,,%2C%20breast%2C%20and%20so%20on.

MD, Hunninghake, Dr. Ron. Accessed 6 Sept. 2023.

Communications, Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Researchers Report Dramatic Rise in Cancer in People under 50.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 9 Sept. 2022,