Lifestyle decisions and access to care can impact the likelihood of cancer both now and later in life
Cancer is, statistically, a diagnosis that occurs more frequently as we age. The most recent data from the NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program finds the median age of a cancer diagnosis is 66 years—62 for breast cancer, 67 for colorectal cancer, 71 for lung cancer, and 66 for prostate cancer.
You could assume, then, that worrying about cancer is best saved for the end of middle age and the beginning of one’s golden years. But the reality is that cancer can and does occur at any age, and there are certain cancers that are in fact more common when we are younger. Adults in their 20s and 30s—those most likely to be in better shape overall and thus less likely to visit their doctor—are also the lion’s share of the uninsured and those without consistent or meaningful access to care. A combination of better education and a care model that speaks to this segment of Americans is key to preventing the rise of costly and often fatal disease down the road.
What to look for in earlier adulthood
Whether you’re an employer, family member, or good friend, consider whether those you know in their 20s or 30s engage in regular self-checking of potential cancer symptoms. And perhaps more importantly, whether they’re regularly engaged with a healthcare provider they trust.
Certain types of lymphomas (cancers found in immune cells called lymphocytes) are common across age groups. But Hodgkin lymphoma is more often seen in those in their 20s compared to Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Common symptoms include lumps (swollen lymph nodes) under the skin in the neck, armpit, or groin; unexplained weight loss; and tiredness.
Melanoma (skin cancer) is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30 (especially younger women). The most important warning sign is a new spot on the skin or a spot that’s changing in size, shape, or color. It’s important to look for spots that appear different from other spots on your skin.
Cervical cancer is most often found in women younger than 50, but it rarely occurs in women younger than 20. The most common symptom is abnormal vaginal bleeding. The good news is that regular screenings and vaccines against HPV, the virus linked to most cervical cancers, are effective at preventing it.
Testicular cancer is most common in younger men—about half of all cases occur between the ages of 20 and 34. Usually, the first symptom is a lump on the testicle, or the testicle becomes swollen or larger. Most of the time these lumps are not painful, which is why it’s important to self-check and have any lumps checked by a doctor as soon as possible.
Thyroid cancer is more common as we age, but it’s also found at a younger age than most other adult cancers, especially in women. It’s most diagnosed from a lump in the front of the neck, but other symptoms include pain or swelling in the neck, trouble breathing or swallowing, and voice changes. Most thyroid lumps are not cancer, but it’s still important to have them checked to be sure.
The most important element of these earlier-found cancers is that they can be painless or otherwise easy to miss. It’s why self-checking and awareness of possible symptoms, especially for younger adults, is so vital to catching cancer when it is early and highly treatable. But how many of these adults have access to consistent care and a healthcare support network that they trust?
Preventive health care and habits
Most adults recognize the correlation of poor diet and lack of exercise with conditions like obesity and diabetes. After all, Americans are experiencing obesity and diabetes at younger ages than ever before, even in childhood. But often—because the threat of cancer feels far off for those still in their 20’s and 30’s—these same factors are ignored when related to an increased risk of cancer. Consider that increased alcohol consumption, high intake of sugars, frequent red meat and processed meat consumption, and poor sleep all increase the risk of one or more types of cancer.
These issues are often compounded by the fact that many Americans under 40 lack meaningful access to care, either due to financial barriers or care models that don’t feel like they are built with younger adults in mind.
The 2020 US census found that the country’s largest uninsured group were adults ages 19 to 34. While these numbers have recently improved thanks to Medicaid expansion, barriers still exist for those who feel that current models of care are outdated, bloated, and more concerned with revenue than health outcomes. When you factor in the reality that those who are young often feel like they don’t even need regular health care, it’s no surprise that an entire generation of Americans are skipping out on preventive care that would otherwise result in better outcomes–and money saved–down the road.
So how do you reach them? If you’re an employer, your first consideration should be how easy your healthcare benefit is to access. Millennials and Gen Z are used to online, streamlined consumer journeys. Are they able to reach their provider through an easy-to-use app? Can they schedule a telephonic or virtual appointment for an urgent concern? How easy is it for them to fill a prescription? Having answers to these questions means your younger employees, family members, or friends are much more likely to engage in a healthcare benefit.
Consider also the breadth of healthcare services. A recent study found 80% of Millennials spend one-fourth of their disposable income on holistic wellness products. 70% say they are “doing everything” that they can to live a healthy life. In short, younger generations are much more concerned with a holistic definition of healthiness: the intersection of physical and mental health, wellness support, and access to better nutrition and exercise education.
Younger adults can be encouraged to use the healthcare benefits that are available to them. But it takes them knowing that the benefit is accessible, affordable, and able to provide a personalized experience that considers their health goals.
The worst diagnosis is one that comes too late
Delaying preventive health care is like delaying an oil change on your car. You may know that regular oil changes are important to keep your engine in top shape. But your car is still running fine. You might wait another 5,000 miles, or even 10,000 miles, before getting it serviced. The problem is that personal health is vastly more important—and long-lasting—than the health of a car. Effective communication, better access, and a custom-built healthcare experience is often the difference between a younger employee receiving care or kicking the can down the road.
Preventive screenings and regular self-checks can feel unnecessary, inconvenient, and even scary for those in their 20’s and 30’s. But the reality is that those who avoid preventive care (due to cost concerns, lack of access, or general distrust in traditional models) are not simply avoiding the likelihood of bad news; they’re increasing that likelihood the longer they wait.
Reaching this generation of Americans requires better education and a system that prioritizes customization, affordability, and omnichannel access. These improvements are vital to keeping them healthy and avoiding the costliest and most dangerous diagnoses as they get older.