Wellness·5 min read

The Truth About the Rise of Cancer in People Under 50

A woman looking at her phone looking distressed
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
March 6, 2024

As technology and medicine advance, you'd think cancer cases would decrease. Based on recent media reports, it seems to be the opposite: Cancer cases, including breast and colorectal, are rising in people under 50. But these headlines may create more panic than necessary without the broader context. So let's look at the stats to understand what’s happening, including the risks of cancer for the average young adult. 

PS: Any mention of young adults or people refers to those under 50. 

What’s my actual cancer risk?

A commonly cited study across headlines says that cancer cases in young adults have surged nearly 80% worldwide over the past three decades. And that’s true

But here’s the thing: The population grew about 40% larger between 1991 and 2019. So cancer cases would naturally increase, too. Considering population growth, another study published in JAMA Network found that about 100 out of 100,000 young people in the US had cancer in 2010 — and by 2019, that number went up to about 103. So the increase is relatively small. 

Experts attribute some of these increases to things like more sensitive screenings, smoking, inactivity, and obesity. Cancer is still more common in older people, generally, says Jeffrey Meyerhardt, MD, chief clinical research officer and codirector of the Colon and Rectal Cancer Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of what’s happening with younger adults. That’s why we did some digging into the JAMA Network data, looking into three of the most common types of cancer that affect women.

Breast cancer 

The trend: Breast cancer accounted for the highest number of diagnoses among young people.

The numbers: For every 100,000 young people, about 21 were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. That number increased to 24 in 2019 — accounting for about .024% of young people. Young Black women have higher mortality rates, compared to white women in the same age group.

Bottom line: Your risk for breast cancer depends on a lot (genetics, health, lifestyle, and medical history). Experts recommend starting annual mammogram screenings at or around 40, though some women say breast cancer screenings should start earlier. If you’re concerned, there’s no harm in running unusual symptoms past your doctor. 

Colorectal cancer

The trend: Rates of gastrointestinal cancers — which includes colorectal cancer — are growing faster than any other type of cancer in young people. 

The numbers: For every 100,000 young people, about seven people developed colorectal cancer in 2010 — and about eight in 2019. That’s around .008% of young people.

Bottom line: Experts aren’t sure what’s causing this increase. Some are calling for better early-detection screenings aside from just being younger than 45, when colon and rectal screenings are recommended to start. In the meantime, look out for symptoms like blood in stool, rectal bleeding, and weakness and fatigue, to name a few. 

Uterine, ovarian, and cervical cancers

The trend: Data shows these cancers of the female reproductive system have increased faster than most other types. Uterine cancer disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic women, and one study found that cervical cancer has increased among low-income women. Like breast cancer, they’re helping drive the overall cancer increase among young women. 

The numbers: In 2019, for every 100,000 young people, about… 

Bottom line: These are relatively small numbers — but if you’re worried, keep an eye out for symptoms and risk factors. There are no routine screenings for ovarian and uterine cancers, but staying up to date on screenings and vaccinations such as pap smears and the HPV vaccine can help reduce your risk of cervical cancer. 

How to handle those panic headlines 

It’s human to worry about something that could impact your health. “You're trying to get rid of uncertainty by saying, ‘I'll just assume a bad thing … because I don't want to be caught off guard,’” says Karen Cassiday, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and the author of “Freedom from Health Anxiety.” 

But spiraling doesn’t protect you — and even with the best health care, rare but serious issues can happen. To avoid letting anxiety hijack your life, Cassiday says to:

  • Remember that “simply hearing about cancer, or recognizing that you might share similar characteristics with people who get cancer, does not mean you will get it,” she says. 

  • Check your sources. Cassiday recommends reading articles from outlets that cite credible universities, medical schools, and organizations.

  • Avoid "practicing medicine" on yourself by self-diagnosing. Skip Dr. Google when you’re feeling off, and make an appointment with an actual doctor. 

  • Assess if your doctor is taking you seriously. If they listen to you, run tests, and say things look fine, try to rely on the facts they’re providing. If you don’t feel heard, it’s your right to find a doc who will thoroughly investigate your symptoms.


Reading about trends like this can be terrifying — especially when cancer is involved. While the increase among young people is real, there’s more to the story than a quick headline.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

Subscribe to Skimm Well

Sign up here to receive our wellness newsletter filled with actionable advice, expert-vetted content, product recs, and more — delivered directly to your inbox.