medical professional taking mammogram of a female patient. Cancer concept
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
January 22, 2024 ·  5 min read

Cancer Deaths Are Declining, but Troubling Rise in Colon and Breast Cancer in Young Adults, Report Says

A recent report from the American Cancer Society has highlighted a concerning trend in cancer rates among younger adults. While cancer deaths have been declining overall, there has been a troubling increase in colon and breast cancer cases in this age group. The report sheds light on the significant challenges faced by healthcare professionals in combating these specific types of cancer.

Cancer Deaths Down, But Rates In Young People Up

According to the report, deaths from cancer have declined by 33% since 1991, resulting in the prevention of around 4.1 million deaths. While this is positive, there has also been a disturbing increase in cancer diagnoses among younger adults. Experts attribute the decline in cancer death rates to several factors, including reduced smoking rates and advancements in treatments and therapies. However, the rise in colon and breast cancer cases in individuals aged 50 and below has raised concerns among healthcare professionals. (1)

Of particular concern is the rise in deaths from colon cancer among younger individuals. This form of cancer has now become the leading cause of death among men under 50 and the second leading cause among women in the same age group. Alarmingly, colon and breast cancer now surpass lung cancer as the leading causes of cancer death for individuals under the age of 50.

“It’s something that wasn’t represented in statistics yet – that there has been a creep toward younger age of onset of certain common cancers. Colorectal and breast are the dominant ones,” said Dr. Larry Norton, oncologist and researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

The report also reveals that for the first time, the projected number of new cancer diagnoses in the United States will surpass two million, equating to approximately 5,480 diagnoses each day. While overall cancer death rates continue to decline, the report highlights increased rates for several other common cancers, including breast, prostate, uterine, pancreas, oral, liver, kidney, melanoma, colorectal, and cervical cancer in young adults.

What Is The Cause?

The reasons behind the increase in cancer rates among younger adults are still not fully understood. Experts propose that rising obesity rates and unidentified environmental factors could be potential risk factors. Oncologists and cancer experts at the American Cancer Society have expressed the need for us to better understand the environmental factors that are influencing the incidence and mortality rates of cancer in young individuals.

To address the growing number of cases, health officials have lowered the age for average-risk individuals to start screening for colon and breast cancer. The current recommendation suggests starting screenings for colon cancer at the age of 45 and for breast cancer at the age of 40. Early detection plays a crucial role in the successful treatment of cancer, providing an opportunity for less aggressive therapies and higher chances of survival.

Not Just An American Trend

Oncologists across the country have noticed that the trends observed in the United States are in line with those in other high-income countries. This suggests that new lifestyles or environmental exposures for younger generations may contribute to the increased incidence of colon cancer. Factors such as exposure to chemicals in foods and the environment, as well as the recent legalization and increased use of cannabis, are being considered as potential risk factors. Dr. Folasade May, a gastroenterologist and researcher at UCLA Health, highlights additional factors that might contribute to an individual’s chances of developing cancer later in life. 

“There are studies that even show that risk factors like whether or not you were breastfed, whether or not you had antibiotics at a high rate as a child — that these factors might be predicting your chances of getting cancer when you’re an adult,” said Dr. Folasade May, gastroenterologist and researcher at UCLA Health. However, it is estimated that approximately 30% of cancer diagnoses in individuals under 50 are due to an underlying family history or genetic mutation.

Regardless of the underlying causes, healthcare professionals stress the importance of timely screenings and early detection. Colonoscopy and other screening tools are crucial in identifying cancer at its early stages when treatment options are more effective. Unfortunately, statistics show that many younger individuals delay seeking medical attention, leading to advanced-stage cancer, significantly reducing survival rates.

Read: 20 Early Warning Signs of Lung Cancer That Women Should Never Ignore

In the case of breast cancer, several factors contribute to higher death rates among younger Americans. Decreased fertility rates and increasing obesity levels are identified as risk factors for breast cancer. However, advancements in treatment paradigms and early detection can make a significant impact in reducing mortality rates.

Uterine cancer was the only cancer identified in the report that has seen an increase in death rates across all age groups over the past 40 years. Racial disparities play a significant role in uterine cancer mortality rates, with Black people and indigenous populations facing a higher risk of dying from this cancer. The report highlights the need to address these disparities to ensure timely diagnosis and appropriate medical intervention.

What To Do Now?

Addressing these trends requires a comprehensive approach that includes improved understanding of environmental factors, increased awareness about the importance of screenings, and equity research and outreach to bridge the gaps in racial disparities in cancer care. The American Cancer Society and healthcare professionals nationwide are actively working towards developing new treatment paradigms, prevention strategies, and early detection methods to combat the increasing incidence of colon and breast cancer among younger adults.

“There’s a concern that, as the population ages, that what is currently an increase in young-onset disease will turn into increases in mid-onset and late-onset disease as well. So if the epidemiology of this is changing, this could be the beginning of a wave of increased cancers that may persist or may continue to increase over the next decades,” said Dr. Scott Kopetz of the MD Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston. (2)

While the report highlights concerning trends, it also signifies the importance of continued research and investment in cancer prevention and treatment. Through collective efforts and proactive measures, it is possible to reverse the upward trajectory of cancer rates among younger adults and ensure a healthier future for all.

Keep Reading: 24-Year-Old Diagnosed With Stage 3 Cancer After She Overlooked Continuous Burping


  1. Cancer deaths declining overall, but troubling increase for colon and breast cancer in younger adults: Report.” ABC News. Dr. Aishwarya Thakur. January 17, 2024.
  2. Cancer incidence rising among adults under 50, new report says, leaving doctors searching for answers.” CNN.  Jacqueline Howard. January 17, 2024.