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Prof Andrew Beggs of Birmingham University runs a special clinic for young people with cancer and has noted, as have other experts, that more and more people under the age of 45 are being diagnosed with some form of the condition.

“There are a number of reasons for this rise,” he told the Observer. “For one thing, we are simply getting better at spotting cancer at earlier and earlier stages. In addition, special awareness is involved. Young people are much more perceptive about their health than previous generations and so they are more willing to seek help at an early stage when their symptoms have first appeared.”

This is good news, scientists say. If a cancer is left untreated for too long, it can spread through a patient’s body, with fatal results. “Spotting a cancer at an early stage means treatment is more likely to be successful,” said Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK.

The fact that young people are more willing to come forward for diagnosis and treatment also reflects the notable improvements made in treating cancers over recent decades. “People no longer see cancer as an inevitable death sentence, as did previous generations,” added Beggs. “Today, it is seen as something that can often be cured. That gives them further impetus to come forward.”

Another factor involved in the rise in cancers in younger individuals is inherited predispositions for conditions such as bowel and breast cancers. Susceptibility to some of these can be passed on through families, and the genes responsible may be building up in populations because carriers are living longer and having more children. “It is a selection process. People are surviving longer to pass these genetic changes down through generations,” said Beggs.

In addition, there is the prospect that some as yet undetected environmental factors may be affecting cancer rates. Rising levels of obesity cause rising cancer rates, for example. By contrast, the sharp decline in smoking seen over the past 50 years has brought a major decrease in case numbers.

The good news for younger patients is that they can tolerate higher doses of chemotherapy than older patients, and so can be given stronger treatment regimens that are more likely to kill off any cancer cells left in their bodies. Prof Lawrence Young of Warwick University said: “Cancer survival is generally higher in younger people. In addition, an incidental finding of cancer during surgery for other conditions is often associated with the tumour being detected at an early stage, when subsequent chemotherapy is much more effective.”

However, the major improvements in detecting cancers at an early stage have been less effectively introduced in the UK than in other nations, according to Beggs. “Take bowel cancer. If you live in the US or Europe and you display early symptoms, you will be given a colonoscopy very quickly, whereas in the UK the chances are there will be a considerable delay,” said Beggs. “We need to make real improvements at this stage.”


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