A recent study published in Nature revealed that since the ‘90s, cancer has been on the rise in people under the age of 50. Moreover, this increase has been identified across 14 cancer types, including breast, colon, esophagus, kidney, liver, and pancreas, to name a few. 

While the news may be alarming, the study pointed to several key factors that have impacted the rise of these cancer types globally, which could help focus our efforts on reducing – or even reversing – this increase. These factors can be linked to five main sources that make up an individual's “exposome,” which includes lifestyle, weight, environmental exposures, diet, and microbiome. Each of these components has shifted dramatically in the last several decades, with some of these shifts having a profoundly negative impact on health and subsequent cancer diagnoses. 

Perhaps the most significant takeaway from this study is that of the 14 cancer types, eight were directly linked to digestive and gut health. In fact, in a recent Harvard Gazette article, lead study author Tomotaka Ugai explained that the foods we eat feed microorganisms in our gut: “Diet directly affects microbiome composition, and, eventually, these changes can influence disease risk and outcomes.”

When looking at dietary choices that can negatively impact gut and digestive health, most are the usual suspects: Highly processed foods; sugars; an increase in meat consumption and a decrease in the amount of plants and vegetables consumed; and an increase in alcohol consumption are all linked to an elevated risk of cancer. Additionally, diet and lifestyle go hand in hand with the lack of physical activity, changes in sleep patterns and stress. These are all linked to cancer diagnoses. 

While we can reduce cancer risk by eating more of a plant-based diet, moderating alcohol consumption, not smoking, increasing physical activity and developing healthy sleep habits, early detection is key to effective treatment. In colorectal cancer, for example, cases are rising by 2 percent each year, prompting an earlier screening age recommendation from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force.

Dr. Karen Knudsen, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, agrees that early detection is critical. In a recent CNN interview, Dr. Knuden stated that although cancer is a serious diagnosis at any age, tumors tend to be more aggressive in younger adults, specifically those under the age of 50. At the same time, these tumors often go undetected much longer because routine cancer screening is not generally recommended for some of the most common cancer types – such as breast and prostate – for this group.

Ironically, while cancer rates have risen over the past decade – especially for people 50 or younger – cancer mortality rates have continued to decline with improved treatment options being introduced and tested every day. What’s more, cancer mortality is expected to decline even further with President Biden’s recent cancer moonshot initiative, which sets the goal of reducing cancer deaths by half over the next 25 years, as well as improving the lives of cancer survivors. Hopefully, we will see the increase in cancer risk reverse in the coming years, just as we saw with the overall cancer death rates drop over time.