It seems that the rise in cancer rates among younger groups has become a remarkable reality for doctors and members of the scientific community, a fact that raises a lot of concern and raises many questions: What are the reasons for the increase in cases among young people? Why are certain cancers more prevalent among these groups? And last and most importantly, does it have anything to do with our diet or our contemporary lifestyles? In this report, Claire Wilson, medical affairs editor at New Scientist, explores some of these questions.
In a world where cancer research continues to infiltrate aggressively, we are constantly hearing good news about how many people are benefiting from advances in treatments, but this story has another side that is not getting enough attention. Over three decades, the number of people under the age of fifty has gradually increased. In these circumstances, our awareness of the underlying cause is at a loss and does not know anything.
Days reveal that bowel or colon cancer is the most virulent type, but this does not negate the continuous increase in tumors that cover almost all major organs of the body. Adding to the concern, in February, the UK-US Cancer Research Centre decided to give the highest priority to funding research on this matter (meaning the atmosphere smells dangerous). This brings us to the most important question: "What are the possible causes of a high rate of cancer?"
World Health Organization (WHO) figures on global cancer cases call for cancer to be seen as a new global epidemic (Getty Images)
Well, normally, the incidence of cancer in humans increases as they age, mainly because older cells have had a longer time to acquire gene mutations that cause tumors. For example, nine out of ten cancerous tumors target people over the age of 50. To confirm this, Alice Davies, from Cancer Research UK, said: "It is important to remember that the vast majority of cases that cancer creeps up on are patients over the age of 50.
However, the trend that Cancer is taking to make its way to us remains worrisome, as there is no sign that its resolve may dissipate anytime soon. Marios Giannakis, an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said: "You feel like young people at this stage of life should be healthy and busy caring for their children, so you get the face of life more sullen and your day becomes very painful whenever you meet a young man with cancer." In an opinion piece in the journal Science in February, Giannakis called for exploring the reasons behind the high incidence of bowel cancer specifically.
What may ease the impact of this a bit and give some reassurance is that the increase in the incidence of most types of tumors in the age group under fifty years is relatively small so far. For example, between 1993-2018, the incidence of all cancers in the UK among the 25-49 age groups increased from 133 to just 162 cases per <>,<> people. However, Shoji Ogino, a professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, argues that the WHO's figures on cancer cases in rich, middle-income and even low-income countries call for cancer to be seen as a new global pandemic: "I believe that the trend adopted by cancer will not stop anytime soon, but on the contrary may accelerate its pace."
The incidence of bowel cancer is the most worrying. Since the 25s, infection rates among 49-50-year-olds in the UK, for example, have risen by about <>%, and the disease has followed a similar pattern in the US, Canada, Australia, South Korea and several European countries, including Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands. At first glance, this phenomenon may be attributed to the relatively recent approach to cancer screening, which aims to trace tumors that we would not have been able to notice without them.
But that doesn't explain the fact that the higher incidence of bowel cancer is highest among younger age groups, those who are rarely screened. Research conducted on twenty European countries showed that the rate of infection of individuals in their forties increases annually by about 2%, while it reaches 5% among those in their thirties, while it reaches 8% among those in their twenties. Manon Spander of Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, believes that whatever the cause, the disease is still resuming and does not seem to be deterred by the continuous increase.
The highest rise in bowel cancers is found among those between the ages of 18 and 49, and appears as tumors in the lower part of the intestine and rectum. (Shutterstock)
Another reason to be concerned is that some cancers that grow among individuals under the age of fifty appear to be more severe than those that attack older adults, most famously bowel, breast, and prostate cancers. This may be partly because it takes longer for young people to be diagnosed with the disease, perhaps because this age group is less likely to be suspected of having cancer, and those tumors that affect those under fifty are often characterized by certain innate traits such as genetic mutations that are difficult to treat.
The common belief is that cancer in most cases takes several decades to develop and the cells gradually acquire more mutations that allow them to dodge and evade the natural brake grip or limitations imposed by our bodies when cells multiply. So, according to pathology professor Shoji Eugeno, the main cause of tumors that affected patients in their twenties, thirties and forties is mainly due to things they were exposed to in their childhood, or perhaps even since they were in their mothers' womb.
The most obvious reason for the increase in the number of cases, which is most uncertain, is the changes in our diet, and the biggest evidence for this is that the highest incidence is found in bowel cancer, where the digestive system is directly connected to the food we eat. Of the 14 cancers on the rise among individuals under the age of fifty, eight involve part of the digestive system, such as the esophagus, stomach and gallbladder.
One of the prevailing beliefs about the increase in the number of infections is also due to some aspects of Western diets rich in red or processed meat, as eating more of these processed meats may increase the risk of bowel cancer. The evidence for this argument is that the highest rise in bowel cancers is found among those aged 18-49 years, and appears as tumors in the lower intestine and rectum. Oncologist Giannakis says: "These types of cancers are often associated with eating processed red meat."
We are talking specifically about processed meat, because claims that (natural) red meat is carcinogenic are still disputed among experts. However, red meat is not the only problem of the Western diet, but even more painful disasters, such as its filling with sugars, fats, processed foods or highly processed food products (those that taste delicious and cheap), and refined carbohydrates whose main source is the wheat flour from which white bread is made, not to mention its lack of fiber.
On the other hand, scientists are skeptical about whether this system has produced one of the most obvious negative effects of our time: rising levels of obesity. Some studies suggest that overweight or obese individuals are more likely to suffer from certain types of cancer. In this context, the reason for the increase in the number of cancers may not be directly related to what people eat, but may have to do with some other aspects of modern life, such as the transition to a more sedentary lifestyle, or our increased exposure to certain environmental pollutants.
Another possible reason for this increase is the use of antibiotics because of their potential effect on gut bacteria. Manon Spander of Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands says that the use of antibiotics began in the fifties of the last century, which means that children who received antibiotics at that time were in their forties by the nineties, which is when early cancer began to appear.
Concerted efforts and research needed
There are many studies that have already been prepared to explore the relationship between our health and our lifestyle, and this may facilitate the work of cancer researchers. (Shutterstock)
With so many possible causes, cancer research needs to give greater priority to identifying the underlying causes in an accurate and reliable way. Indeed, in February, two major funders, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and the US National Cancer Institute, agreed to prioritize cancer research.
Shirin Lowe of the University of Melbourne, Australia, who helped set up research priorities for major cancer challenges, argues that we still need large, long-term studies that track individuals from a young age and ultimately record their cancer rates by tracking their lifestyle and environments while taking regular blood samples.
Fortunately, this very hard and daunting research does not need to be started from scratch, as there are already many such studies that have already been prepared to explore the relationship between our health and our lifestyle, and this may facilitate the work of cancer researchers by drawing on their previous efforts to extract the necessary or relevant data. Lowe believes it is too early at the moment to advise the public to avoid any of the risk factors presented before we have definitive answers. "The underlying causes of cancer are still beyond our comprehension, so right now we're still floundering in the dark," she confirms.
This article is translated from New Scientist and does not necessarily reflect Meydan's website.
Translation: Somaya Zaher.