Cancer often seems like a disease that mostly affects older people. And it’s true—age is a risk factor for cancer, partly because of the environmental and lifestyle factors you’re exposed to over the course of your life.
“Increasing exposure to toxins like air pollution and cigarette smoke, and health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes, can affect you cumulatively and contribute to cancer,” says Philip Kuriakose, M.D., a hematologist and medical oncologist at Henry Ford Health.
That said, it’s an alarming statistic that people are developing cancer at younger ages. A recent study showed an almost 30% increase in cancer in people ages 15 to 39 from 1973 to 2015.
“There are a few theories as to why this is,” says Dr. Kuriakose. “Testing and screening guidelines have changed over the years, and there has been more awareness around cancer screenings. But the rates of obesity have also been rising in young people, which could be a contributing factor. Increasing environmental exposures could be at play, too.”
Whatever the reason, it’s important to be on top of your health, and not to ignore any symptom that you’re questioning. “Always ask your doctor—no matter how young or old you are,” says Dr. Kuriakose. “More often than not it’s nothing, but there are cases when it is serious. And the sooner you catch it, the better the outcome will be.” Here, Dr. Kuriakose shares the types of cancers that are most likely to be diagnosed at different ages.
Children & Teens
Cancers in children and teenagers are rare, but they do occur. They aren’t usually due to environmental or lifestyle factors, but rather genetics. They include:
- Leukemia, or blood cancer, which is the most common form of childhood cancer.
- Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, two types of lymphatic cancer that develop in immune cells. Among ages 15 to 40, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is more common than Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
- Brain tumors. Brain tumors that develop in the lower part of the brain are more common in children, while tumors that develop in the upper part of the brain are more common in adults. In adolescents, brain tumors can occur in the lower or upper part of the brain.
- Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that develops in the nerve tissues of the adrenal gland. It can sometimes be there from birth, but can go undetected until it gets bigger.
- Wilms tumor, a type of kidney cancer that’s most common in children ages 3 to 4.
- Bone cancer. Ewing’s sarcoma (often found in the upper leg and pelvis) and osteosarcoma (often found in the knee) are the most common types of bone cancer in children and adolescents.
- Rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft-tissue sarcoma that usually forms in skeletal muscle tissue. It most commonly develops in the bladder, reproductive system, arms and legs, or head and neck.
- Retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer that's most common in babies and young kids.
Young Adults (Ages 20s, 30s and 40s)
Cancer in young adults may be more common than in the past, but developing cancer as a younger adult is still not as common as developing cancer as an older adult. Cancers to watch out for include:
- Breast cancer. While it’s much less common for younger women to get breast cancer than older women, in about 9% of cases, breast cancer occurs in women younger than 45 years old.
- Non-Hodgkin’s and Hodgkin’s lymphomas. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma affects white blood cells known as lymphocytes, which are part of the immune system. It’s distinguished from Hodgkin’s lymphoma by the absence of large, abnormal cells called Reed-Sternberg cells.
- Melanoma. While skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are more likely to occur in older adults due to long-term sun exposure, melanoma tends to have a more genetic component and can occur in people as young as their 20s.
- Sarcomas, or cancers of connective tissues like muscles, bones and fat.
- Cervical cancer. While 50 is the average age of cervical cancer diagnosis, it is most common in women ages 35 to 44.
- Ovarian cancer. In general, ovarian cancer is more common in older women, but some rare types of genetic ovarian cancer occur more commonly in younger women.
- Thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer is more common in women than men; it may be first noticed as a lump on the front of the neck.
- Testicular cancer. About half of testicular cancers are found in men ages 20 to 34.
- Colorectal cancer. Those born around 1990 are twice as likely to get colon cancer and four times as likely to get rectal cancer than those born in 1950.
- Brain and spinal cord tumors. Blurred vision, dizziness, headaches, vomiting, and seizures can be signs of a brain tumor.
Older Adults (Ages 50+)
Cancer can occur at any age, but there are average ages at which certain cancers occur. They include:
- Cervical cancer (50) In almost all cases, cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV infection.
- Breast cancer (62) Aside from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer.
- Ovarian cancer (63) Ovarian cancer is a silent disease—the symptoms are non-specific, which is why most patients are diagnosed with stage 3 or above. Only 20% are found at an early stage.
- Rectal cancer (63) Rectal cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells grow in the tissues of the rectum. The rectum is the tube that connects the colon (large intestine) to the anus, the opening where stool leaves the body.
- Melanoma (65) Melanoma is the least common type of skin cancer but the most deadly.
- Prostate cancer (66) Prostate cancer is usually slow growing and has no symptoms unless it’s relatively advanced.
- Colon cancer (68 for men, 72 for women) Colon cancer is caused by cancerous cells that grow in the tissues and muscles of the colon. The colon is the first part of the large intestine, which helps convert digested food into waste that leaves the body as stool.
- Pancreatic cancer (70) Pancreatic cancer occurs when tumor cells in the pancreas become cancerous. Your pancreas plays a vital role in breaking down sugars, starches and fats.
- Lung cancer (70) Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer in the world. This is because the majority of lung cancers are caught at late stages, when they are too advanced to treat effectively.
- Bladder cancer (73) Bladder cancer is presented in two grades: low and high. Low grade means the disease is superficial – that it hasn’t spread into the deeper parts of the bladder wall and has low potential to spread outside the bladder. High grade bladder cancer has the potential to spread outside the bladder. As with every cancer, the earlier you get to a doctor, the more successful it will be to treat.
“Some cancers only show symptoms when it is at a late stage,” says Dr. Kuriakose. “And there are only standard screening guidelines for five types of cancers: breast, colorectal, lung, prostate and cervical cancers. That's why it’s important to stay on top of your regular screenings, know your family history and talk to your doctor when something doesn’t seem right.”
Philip Kuriakose, M.D., is a hematologist and medical oncologist. He is a senior staff physician at Henry Ford Health and medical director of the Henry Ford Hemophilia Treatment Center. He sees patients at Henry Ford Cancer in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center—Columbus.