Troubling trend: Certain cancers on the rise at younger ages, researchers say

CHARLOTTE — Cancer researchers say more people are getting certain cancers at younger ages than the previous generation.

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Channel 9 spoke with some cancer patients about their journey to healing, and an oncologist about why they are seeing the rise and what can be done to lower the risk.

Courtney Whitley noticed something unusual on her body in January 2021 while showering.

“I was just soaping myself,” said Whitley, a breast cancer survivor. “I wasn’t even doing a self-check or anything, and I felt a lump.”

She wasn’t old enough to start thinking about getting a mammogram, nor did she know about any family history of breast cancer.

“I was, kind of, in shock at first,” Whitley said. “It was stage 2.”

Whitley is part of a troubling trend nationwide.

A graph from the National Cancer Institute shows the rate of cancer in people aged 15 to 39 has gone up almost 30% since the 1980s.

The American Cancer Society said in that age group, breast cancer is the most common cancer type for women, and testicular cancer in men.

Several other cancers, such as colorectal, thyroid, kidney, pancreatic and melanoma, are also on the rise.

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There doesn’t seem to be one clear cause, but doctors say a person’s lifestyle could be a factor.

“Increasing obesity in adolescence and young adults, particularly with colon cancer, is definitely probably one risk factor,” said Dr. Kim Strickland, breast cancer oncologist with Novant Health. “Also, probably some environmental causes, so for melanoma, for instance possibly increased sun exposure.”

Strickland is spearheading a new program at Novant Health that will specifically support the younger population of cancer patients.

“If you think about the type of patients who are 15 to 39, those are young adults that are getting ready to either go into the workforce, start their life, get married, think about children,” Strickland said.

Whitley has two daughters, which she said made it easier for her to decide on a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and treatment plans.

“I felt lucky in the sense that I was done breastfeeding,” Whitley said. “I was done carrying my daughters, because I feel like that would be a really big struggle if you still wanted to nurse your children.”

The program will also help address the long-term impacts of cancer treatment that tend to be unique for younger patients.

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“Infertility is a big one, unfortunately, sexual dysfunction, cardiac problems,” Strickland said.

“I wish that they would lower the age a little bit for initial mammograms,” Whitley said.

The American Cancer Society lowered the age for colonoscopies because colon cancer was on the rise in people younger than 50.

It dropped the recommended age from 50 to 45, and that may have saved Stephanie Prioleau’s life.

She was 47 years old when she was diagnosed with colon cancer and had no family history of it.

“Grateful,” Prioeau said. “Certainly grateful and I just want to share with people, take care of yourselves. Get your screenings when the time comes.”

The American Cancer Society says the best way to lower the risk of any cancer is to maintain a healthy weight, cut back on alcohol and avoid smoking. Pay attention to your body and don’t hesitate if you feel like something isn’t right. Novant Health’s new program is expected to launch early next year.

(Watch the video below: Colleagues, loved ones rally around local doctor battling stage 4 colon cancer)