Not that there’s an age at which it is good to have cancer, mind you, but as Amanda Schaffer points out in this morning’s NYT Science Times, more and more young folks are diagnosed each year.
Schaffer raises much-needed awareness about the disturbing rise in cancer diagnoses in adolescents and young adults. According to American Cancer Society statistics, the rates of colorectal, thyroid and testicular cancers are increasing in 20 to 39 year-olds. In that age group, cancer is the leading cause of death from medical illness, trailing only accidents, suicides and homicides for all causes. There seems to be general agreement that rates are increasing, but no one is certain why. Sound familiar? As with epidemics of allergic and neurodevelopmental disorders, it is likely that changes in our environment are responsible for triggering cancer development in those at genetically-high risk. How else to explain cases like that of Dr. Jeff Carenza, profiled in the NYT story, who was diagnosed at age 29 with colon cancer? He had no family history of cancer, and according to his surgeon, Dr. David Dietz, “…tests after the tumor was found were negative for all known hereditary colorectal cancer syndromes.” Dr. Dietz goes on to comment, “Still, genetic factors may be more likely to play a role when young people get the disease.” Hello! What about environmental factors? National Cancer Institute data indicates that, in this age group, breast cancer is the most prevalent in women and testicular cancer is the most prevalent in men. Both of these diagnoses, along with thyroid cancer, have been linked to endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly used in industry today. And now we’re dealing with multi-generation exposure to some of these toxicants, leading to in-utero toxin exposure for babies, and those babies’ babies, who then may develop epigenetic mutations which further predispose to cancer. While genetic predisposition clearly plays a role in the development of cancer, it is increasingly apparent that environmental contaminants in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink are likely culprits in triggering this troubling epidemic.
For more information on environmental oncology, I recommend reading the material posted at the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology web site (disclaimer – I am a medical advisor at the Center). The Collaborative on Health and the Environment‘s Cancer Working Group is another great resource.