Cancer researchers say more people are getting certain cancers at younger ages than the previous generation.
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Channel 9 spoke to some cancer patients about their recovery journey and an oncologist about why they are seeing an increase and what can be done to reduce the risk.
Courtney Whitley noticed something unusual about her body in January 2021 in the shower.
“I was just soaping myself,” said Whitley, a breast cancer survivor. “I wasn’t even doing a self-check or anything, and I felt a lump.”
She wasn’t old enough to start thinking about getting a mammogram, and she had no family history of breast cancer.
“I was kind of in shock at first,” Whitley said. “That was stage 2.”
Whitley is part of a troubling trend nationwide.
A chart from the National Cancer Institute shows that the rate of cancer among people aged 15 to 39 has increased nearly 30% since the 1980s.
The American Cancer Society has stated that in this age group, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women and testicular cancer in men.
Several other cancers, such as colorectal, thyroid, kidney, pancreas and melanoma, are also on the rise.
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There doesn’t appear to be a clear cause, but doctors say a person’s lifestyle could be a factor.
“Rising obesity in adolescents and young adults, particularly with colon cancer, is certainly a likely risk factor,” said Dr. Kim Strickland, breast cancer oncologist at Novant Health. “Also, probably some environmental causes, so for melanoma, for example possibly increased sun exposure.”
Strickland is spearheading a new program at Novant Health that will specifically support the younger population of cancer patients.
“If you think about the type of patients between 15 and 39, these are young adults getting ready to enter the workforce, starting their lives, getting married, thinking about kids,” Strickland said.
Whitley has two daughters, which she says made it easier for her to decide on a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and a treatment plan.
“I felt lucky in the sense that I was done breastfeeding,” Whitley said. “I was done carrying my daughters, because I feel like it would be a really big fight if you still wanted to breastfeed your kids.”
The program will also help address the long-term impacts of cancer treatment which tend to be unique for younger patients.
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“Infertility is a big deal, unfortunately, sexual dysfunction, heart issues,” Strickland said.
“I wish they lowered the age for initial mammograms a bit,” Whitley said.
The American Cancer Society lowered the age for colonoscopies because colon cancer was on the rise in people under 50.
He raised the recommended age from 50 to 45, which may have saved Stéphanie Prioleau’s life.
She was 47 when she was diagnosed with colon cancer and had no family history of it.
“Grateful,” Prioeau said. “Certainly grateful and just want to share with people, take care. Get your screenings when the time is right.
The American Cancer Society says the best way to reduce cancer risk is to maintain a healthy weight, reduce alcohol consumption and avoid smoking. Pay attention to your body and don’t hesitate if you feel something is wrong. Novant Health’s new program is expected to launch early next year.
(Watch the video below: Colleagues, loved ones rally around a local doctor battling stage 4 colon cancer)