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There has been an increased awareness of cancer in younger adults, partly due to several celebrities speaking out about their own cancer diagnoses. Cancer diagnoses have also been rising in people under 50.

It's called early-onset cancer, where diagnosis happens in adults between the ages of 18 and 49. This is concerning for some people because age is usually a top risk factor for cancer.

Our experts offer advice and screening best practices for younger adults to help protect themselves and detect cancer early.

Learn more about cancer types, causes, risk factors and more from UC Davis Health

At what age do cancer diagnoses typically occur?

The median age for cancer diagnoses is 66, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) statistics. However, that can vary between cancers. For example, the median age for a breast cancer diagnosis is 67, while the media age for a lung cancer diagnosis is 71.

However, cancer can be diagnosed at any age. Cancer originating in the bone is most frequently diagnosed in people under age 20 – about 25%. About 12% of brain and nervous system cancers are diagnosed in that same age group, according to NCI data.

Why are cancers more likely to be diagnosed at later stages in younger adults as compared to older adults?

Younger adults tend to not see their primary care provider as regularly unless they have problematic symptoms. This is especially true for men.

Young adults are sometimes just starting to spread their wings and have other things occupying their time and attention. Some people in this age group may not even have a primary care provider or may not have health insurance for a variety of reasons.

When a younger adult does go to a primary care provider for concerning symptoms, cancer is not usually the first thing the provider thinks to test for. That's because it's not as common in this age group.

Learn why you should partner with a primary care provider for your health and wellness

See 5 health screenings that men shouldn't put off and why early detection is important

What cancer screenings should younger adults have done?

For people under age 50, find out if you're at increased risk for certain cancers. This may involve finding out your family history and genetics. Once you learn those things, it's best to talk to your health care provider about which screenings may be right for you.

Three cancer screenings that you can look into include:

  • Breast cancer screening: Adult women of all ages are encouraged to do a breast self-exam at least once a month. Starting at age 40, women should get regular breast imaging or mammograms. Women younger than 40 who have risk factors for breast cancer should talk to their provider about early screening.
  • Cervical cancer screening: Women should get their first Papanicolaou (Pap) test, which helps find abnormal cells in the cervix, beginning at age 21. Women ages 21-29 should get a Pap test every three years. Women ages 30-65 should get some sort of screening (either HPV or Pap test every 3-5 years).
  • Colon cancer screening: Colon cancer is on the rise in younger adults, so this has been in the news frequently over the last few years. People should begin getting colon cancer screenings at age 45. If you're not at increased risk, you should get a colonoscopy or screening every 10 years. If you have personal or family history of colon cancer or other cancers, talk to your provider about earlier or more frequent screening.

Find out what it means to have dense breasts and why screening is so critical

Learn why regular cervical cancer screenings are important for early detection

Colonoscopy vs. at-home colon cancer screening: Find out which is best for you

Are certain cancers being seen at higher rates in younger adults?

Over the past few years, there's been an increase in colorectal cancer diagnoses among younger adults. Colorectal cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for adults under 50. While experts aren't sure exactly what's causing the rise, poor diet and lack of physical activity may be contributing factors.

What can everyone do to help reduce their risk of cancer?

While some cancers are genetic or can come with older age, there are things you can do to help reduce your risk. About one-third of cancer deaths are linked to poor diet, not enough exercise and being overweight. Here are some lifestyle habits to keep in mind:

  • Quit/stay away from tobacco: Tobacco use contributes to 30% of all cancer-related deaths. No forms of tobacco products are safe, including e-cigarettes and hookahs. Secondhand smoke also increases your risk for cancer.
  • Exercise regularly: The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Even if you can just get out for a 20 minute walk during your lunch break, that's still a great option. Staying active can prevent a variety of cancers and other health conditions.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Too much weight results in the production and circulation of two hormones – estrogen and insulin – that can encourage cancer growth. Staying at a healthy weight can reduce your risk of several cancers, as well as other health conditions.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Sticking to a healthy diet can help you keep a healthy weight. Plant-based foods and foods with fiber can help lower your cancer risk. Reducing your red meat intake can help reduce your risk of cancers like colon, breast and prostate.
  • Limit alcohol: It is best not to drink alcohol, according to the American Cancer Society. People who choose to drink alcohol should limit their intake to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 ½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
  • Get vaccinated against HPV: The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can help prevent cervical cancer and other types of cancer caused by HPV. The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls starting at ages 11 or 12, but it can be given as early as age 9 and up to age 45. Ask your primary care provider or your child's pediatrician if the HPV vaccine is right for you or your child.
  • Get screened for hepatitis C: Hepatitis C is a liver infection that can increase the risk of developing liver cancer, specifically hepatocellular carcinoma. It's important to get screened for hepatitis C if you have other risk factors. Early detection and treatment can help prevent liver damage and cancer.

View the American Cancer Society's cancer screening guidelines by age

See the American Cancer Society's recommendations for early detection of breast cancer