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Why Are Rates Of Cancer Increasing in Young People?

Published by Connealy, MD on February 5, 2024

Why are rates of cancer increasing in young people

A recent article published in BMJ Oncology states that from 1990 to 2019, new cancer incidences in patients younger than 50 years old have increased by nearly 80% worldwide. Unfortunately, it is becoming more common for people in their 20s and 30s to receive a cancer diagnosis. While the majority of research has been devoted to genetic testing, cancer vaccines, and targeted therapies, we have made little headway in the fight for cancer. Today 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women are at risk. 

This concerning trend indicates that something external must be driving increasing cancer rates, as opposed to a genetic predisposition. The article notes that breast cancer is the most prevalent, although incidences of gastrointestinal cancers have surged the fastest. Fortunately, research  increasingly demonstrates the connection between our environments and diets and the development of disease. Industrial processes, chemicals, and new technologies have separated us from nature. When we are out of alignment, for example, eating foods that were not designed for our bodies or living under artificial light, cells become dysfunctional. There are several environmental and dietary factors influencing cancer rates:

  1. Lack of Sunlight Exposure: Adequate sunlight exposure is needed for vitamin D synthesis, an essential nutrient that promotes immune function and bone health. A meta-analysis on optimal vitamin D status found a 50% decrease in risk of colorectal cancers in patients with vitamin D levels greater than 34 mg/dL. Healthy sun exposure, especially upon waking, has been demonstrated to support the immune system, healthy sleep cycles, and reduce inflammation–all of which help the body regulate healthy cells and prevent the growth of cancer. While mainstream advice suggests avoiding the sun to prevent risk of skin damage, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that sun exposure decreases the risk of internal cancers. One study conducted in Puerto Rico found that women living with continuous sun exposure had a significantly lower risk of breast cancer.
  1. Poor Nutrition: Modern farming practices in the United States, including the use of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, vaccines, and fertilizers, have exposed Americans to high levels of industrial chemicals and toxins. These practices have also stripped the soil of minerals, meaning many of the foods we are consuming contain less nutrients than 100 years ago. The standard American diet is greatly lacking in essential nutrients and full of chemicals, toxins, preservatives, and fillers. Interestingly, as obesity rates are climbing, so are nutrient deficiencies in North America. Various new substances have been introduced into the food supply, which the body has not yet evolved to digest or process. One example of this is canola oil which was approved for consumption in the 1980s. It is commonly used in restaurants and found in processed and packaged foods, however it was originally used as engine lubricant. The high oleic acid content in canola oil has been demonstrated to induce tumorigenesis, and its introduction into the food supply correlates with increasing obesity and disease rates. 

It is extremely important to be diligent about the foods we eat. If it wasn’t consumed 100 years ago, it shouldn’t be consumed today. Opting for organic produce and meat and choosing whole, fresh foods rather than prepackaged can help mitigate exposure to toxins and chemicals. 

  1. Hormone Imbalances: It is estimated that around 80% of breast cancers are estrogen receptor (ER) positive. This means that the cancer uses estrogen to grow. Estrogen in general promotes cell proliferation; if a cell becomes cancerous and high levels of estrogen are circulating throughout the body, tumors can develop. Unfortunately, there are many chemicals that mimic the effects of estrogen. These are commonly referred to as xenoestrogens and endocrine disruptors and are found in personal care products such as laundry detergents, shampoos, makeup, etc. Exposure to these chemicals can increase estrogen in the body and lead to other imbalances. In addition to excess estrogen, low thyroid and elevated stress hormones are common. These can lead to changes in cellular metabolism that promote the formation of cancer. Modern stressors such as artificial light, toxins, heavy metals, nutrient deficiencies, etc. can lead to chronic thyroid and cortisol imbalances. 
  1. Exposure to Toxins: Over the last 50 years, at least 75,000 new chemicals have been developed and distributed into our environment, and most of these substances have not been properly studied for their impacts on the human body. It is estimated that 20% of human cancers are the result of toxin exposure, although data is difficult to obtain due to the unethical nature of controlled human experimentation. Some known and likely carcinogens include xenoestrogens, benzenes, bisphenol-A (BPA), formaldehyde, and glyphosate. These chemicals may be present in tap water, polluted air, processed foods, foods sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, plastics, consumer products, cosmetics, detergents, etc. Plastics, which are extremely common, can be made from polyvinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen, and can leech xenoestrogens such as BPA when heated or scratched. Researchers are finding microplastics increasingly in human urine, stool, breastmilk, and even placentas. The onslaught of these chemicals can overload the body’s detox pathways and contribute to the development of cancer. 
  1. Exposure to Radiation: Relatively new technologies including cell phones, laptops, WIFI, and wireless headphones are major sources of electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure. EMFs can influence cellular metabolism and cell structure by altering the electric current in the body. This can damage cell structures and contribute to cancer. X-rays are another common source of ionizing radiation. It is becoming common for people to get frequent dental x-rays because of increased need for orthodontic treatment. Interestingly, poor nutrition may be to blame for poor jaw, teeth, and facial development. Regardless, these x-rays expose patients to high levels of radiation, especially because of their proximity to the brain and thyroid glands. Limiting x-rays and EMFs is important for preventing cancer. 
  1. Poor Emotional Health: Emotional stress can manifest physically. It is typical for cancer patients to have underlying emotional stressors whether it be strained relationships, a recent loss, financial issues, and traumas. Repressed anger, chronic fear, and extreme self-criticism all can have hormonal and physical implications leading to the development of disease. Making peace with our past, accepting ourselves, prioritizing healthy relationships, and practicing gratitude are necessary for a healthy life. We fortunately have control over our thoughts and can use the power of the mind to help the healing process.

The body is responding to its environment, and is not a victim to some genetic ‘mishap.’ Rather than becoming discouraged, we can use this information to address our environments and optimize our diets and daily practices to promote healing and prevention. 

Focusing on emotional health, nutrient-dense diets, movement, and healthy sunlight exposure are all extremely important in preventing cancer development. These statistics, although alarming, suggest we do have the power to change outcomes by taking intentional action. While there are aspects beyond our control, our daily habits play a key role in keeping us in good health. Some anticancer habits to practice include:

  • Get daily sunlight
  • Prioritize nutrient dense foods
  • Use non-toxic personal care products
  • Turn wifi off at night
  • Balance hormones
  • Make peace with your past
  • Walk daily
  • Spend time with loved ones & nature
  • Practice gratitude

 1 Zhao J, Xu L, Sun J, et alGlobal trends in incidence, death, burden and risk factors of early-onset cancer from 1990 to 2019BMJ Oncology 2023;2:e000049. doi: 10.1136/bmjonc-2023-000049

 2 Wacker M, Holick MF. Sunlight and Vitamin D: A global perspective for health. Dermatoendocrinol. 2013 Jan 1;5(1):51-108. doi: 10.4161/derm.24494. PMID: 24494042; PMCID: PMC3897598.

 3 Nazario CM, Rosario-Rosado RV, Schelske-Santos M, Mansilla-Rivera I, Ramírez-Marrero FA, Nie J, Piovanetti-Fiol P, Hernández-Santiago J, Freudenheim JL. Sun Exposure Is Associated with Reduced Breast Cancer Risk among Women Living in the Caribbean: The Atabey Study in Puerto Rico. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2022 Feb;31(2):430-435. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-21-0932. Epub 2021 Nov 22. PMID: 34810207; PMCID: PMC9190767.

4 Ping Yang, Chunxiao Su, Xuan Luo, Han Zeng, Lei Zhao, Li Wei, Xiaoyu Zhang, Zac Varghese, John F. Moorhead, Yaxi Chen, Xiong Z. Ruan, Dietary oleic acid-induced CD36 promotes cervical cancer cell growth and metastasis via up-regulation Src/ERK pathway, Cancer Letters, Volume 438, 2018, Pages 76-85, ISSN 0304-3835,

5  DOI: 10.1200/JCO.19.02309 Journal of Clinical Oncology 38, no. 12 (April 20, 2020) 1346-1366.

6  Liu S, Guo J, Liu X, Yang R, Wang H, Sun Y, Chen B, Dong R. Detection of various microplastics in placentas, meconium, infant feces, breastmilk and infant formula: A pilot prospective study. Sci Total Environ. 2023 Jan 1;854:158699. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.158699. Epub 2022 Sep 13.

7  Kıvrak EG, Yurt KK, Kaplan AA, Alkan I, Altun G. Effects of electromagnetic fields exposure on the antioxidant defense system. J Microsc Ultrastruct. 2017 Oct-Dec;5(4):167-176. doi: 10.1016/j.jmau.2017.07.003. Epub 2017 Aug 2

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