Too Young for Cancer?

A woman clutching her chest
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A woman clutching her chest

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the words “too young for cancer”.

Can you be ‘too young for cancer’?

Sadly, nobody is too young for cancer – even a foetus can have cancer. But too often diagnosis is delayed because someone is assumed to be too young for cancer.

Is cancer linked to age?

Cancer is, of course, more common in older people. The risk can increase with age. So, people are offered screening for bowel cancer at age 56 and when over 60. Women are offered breast cancer screening when over 50. These programmes are good at picking up cancers that would otherwise go undetected.

When it comes to patients with symptoms, guidelines set by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) help GPs know who to refer, when and how. Many refer not just to a patient’s symptoms but also their age. For instance, women with an unexplained breast lump should be referred, but only if they are over 30. Patients with unexplained weight loss and abdominal pain should be referred, but only if they are over 40.

So, unless the patient is older than a certain age, they may not be referred. There is a good reason for this: certain cancers are more likely to develop as we get older.

Delays in diagnosis of cancer in young people

But too much focus on age can provide false reassurance. This can lead to cancers being missed in younger patients. This risks people being diagnosed at a late stage when the chance of cure is less.

In some cases, a late cancer diagnosis can create real trauma for the young. They face uncertainty at an early age. They may also have to put up with the consequences of treatment for many years. Treatment of leukaemia or testicular cancer may, for instance, deny a young man of fertility later in life. Young women may face loss of their ovaries or uterus.

We have recently assisted women who have been diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy. Hormones can fuel the development of cancer and cause it to spread. In some cases their cancer symptoms were mistaken for the effects of pregnancy.

Examples of younger patients whose cancer was missed among our clients are:

  • A young woman whose cervical cancer was missed;
  • A young woman with breast cancer who was not diagnosed until the cancer had significantly spread;
  • A young man with abdominal pain and weight loss who was not referred (the guidelines would only have required referral had he been over 40).

So, whilst cancer may be less likely in younger people, it is still a risk. It is important not to assume that someone is too young for cancer.

Resources for young people with cancer

Diagnosis with cancer at any age is devastating, but for young people it can put life on hold just as it’s beginning.

The recent death of The Wanted’s Tom Parker from a brain tumour was a high-profile warning of the fact that cancer can affect people at any age. After receiving his diagnosis he was determined to use his status to both raise money for cancer research, and to increase the public’s awareness of the signs and symptoms of brain tumours.

One of the most important things for anyone undergoing cancer treatment to know is that you are not alone. For anyone that has recently been diagnosed with cancer, here are some organisations that can offer help:

  • The Teenage Cancer Trust – Offer care and support which is tailored to young people, including the provision of specialist units in hospitals and lots of information about living with cancer as a young person.
  • Young Lives vs Cancer – Provide a dedicated social worker service to help with day-to-day issues, as well as opportunities to connect with other young people going through similar experiences.
  • Macmillan – Offer support to anybody that has been affected by cancer, no matter what age, but this page offers information specifically tailored to young people.

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