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Why Are More Young People Getting Cancer? by Dionne Detraz, RD

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Did you know that several recent studies have shown that cancer rates in people under 50 years old have increased by nearly 80% over the last three decades (in Nature, JAMA and BMJ Oncology)? I’ve seen this in my own practice: over half of my current clients, as well as the members of our group coaching program, are under 50, and about a third were under 40 when they first reached out to me. My youngest client this year diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer was 28 years old!


Although breast cancer had the highest number of incident cases in this “early-onset” group, gastrointestinal cancers (colon, rectal, stomach, esophageal, appendix and bile duct) had the fastest-growing incidence rates. One in five new cases of colorectal cancer in the United States occurs in people younger than 55. According to the American Cancer Society, this rate has almost doubled over the past three decades.


Traditionally, cancer has been a secondary disease of aging, with 68 being the average age of diagnosis. The rate of getting cancer triples over the age of 60. Although this is still true, research is showing that since the 1990s, cancer among older adults has been declining, while cancers in people under 50 are rising. Cancer is still the second leading cause of death both in the US and globally (right behind heart disease). An estimated 1.9 million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year in the US. And in 2020, about 10 million people died of cancer worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.


So, the most critical question — one that is much on my mind — is WHY are cancer rates climbing in younger people? Increased screening may partially explain the rise, but to fully understand this phenomenon, we need first to understand the real causes of cancer.

Causes of cancer

Cancer is a disease of uncontrolled cell proliferation of mutated cells, with cells growing and spreading to other parts of the body. This occurs when the genetic information in our cells responsible for keeping cell growth in check is damaged, which explains why it has historically been more common in older people who have had more time to acquire these mutations. The concerning aspect of what is happening today is that people’s cells and bodies are aging quicker, as Dr. Mark Hyman explains in great detail in his book Young Forever.


WHY are people aging more quickly and, consequently, making it easier for cancer to grow? Let’s dive into the three primary reasons I believe this is happening.


1. Toxic burden

The first and arguably most important reason is the sheer number of toxins we are exposed to now compared to our historical exposure rates. Eighty-four thousand chemicals have been introduced into the environment since 1990, and fewer than 1% have actually been tested for safety! An alarming statistic in a study by the Environmental Working Group, in collaboration with Commonweal, is that the average newborn today has 287 known toxins in their umbilical cord blood before they even take their first breath. If a baby also happens to have suboptimal or poor genotypes in their detoxification pathways, they are going to have a challenging time clearing these chemicals. Suppose they were also born via cesarian section (worldwide, about 21% of babies are born via c-section) and fed infant formula. In that case, these factors likely interfered with the development of their microbiome (the collection of all microbes that naturally live in our gut) and consequently weakened their immune system. And then when they do start to eat solid foods, they consume the ultra-processed baby, toddler and kid-friendly foods that are widely available now… You can see how this sets the stage for disease and early aging.


The following is a discussion of the toxins burdening our systems.


Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed food is everywhere; even foods marketed as “healthy” are highly processed food-like substances instead of real, whole food. In addition to being devoid or having very minimal amounts of real nutrients, they are also often full of sugar, refined flours, inflammatory fats, stabilizers, thickeners, colors, flavors, and more. According to a large-scale prospective analysis published in The Lancet from January 2023, higher ultra-processed food (UPF) consumption may be linked to an increased burden and mortality for overall cancers and certain site-specific cancers, especially ovarian & breast cancer.


Environmental chemicals

Then there’s the wide variety of environmental chemicals we’re exposed to from the pesticides or herbicides used to grow our food (especially glyphosate, a likely carcinogen). Then, there are the chemicals found in our water and from air pollution and the chemicals in our cosmetics and body care products, laundry detergents, clothing, cleaning products, new home and car materials, scented products, plastic wraps and bottles… You get the idea; the list goes on and on! Many of these chemicals are carcinogenic, and some have also been shown to disrupt our hormones.


Tobacco & alcohol

And what about the chemicals we choose to consume, like tobacco or alcohol? According to the World Health Organization, in 2020, almost 25% of the world’s population used tobacco; even more used alcohol. The link between tobacco and cancer has already been well established.


In terms of alcohol, we now know there is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer. According to IARC data, alcohol intake accounted for about 4% of all cancers diagnosed globally in 2020. The most prominent link is between alcohol and breast cancer risk, but this most recent data also shows six other cancer types — oral cavity, pharyngeal, laryngeal, esophageal, colorectal and liver cancer — being attributed to alcohol consumption, and emerging evidence suggests stomach and pancreatic cancer may be as well.


Medications & genetic risk

The sheer volume of medications we take throughout our lifetime is staggering. We start when we’re very young with antibiotics and acetaminophen, and then may add in antacids or antidepressants. These drugs all disrupt the gut microbiome, and that influences our immune system. Some have also been shown to deplete glutathione, our body’s main detoxifying compound.


Back to that poor baby born today. What if your genetics have not set you up to handle this level of toxic exposure? What if you have suboptimal or poor genotypes that make it harder for you to clear these toxins? You’re subject to more inflammation, more oxidation and more risk for DNA mutation. And what if, genetically, you also have a more challenging time clearing your hormones or are more at risk for estrogen toxicity, as I see in many of my breast cancer clients? This all, unfortunately, sets the stage for cancer to develop and grow in younger people.

2. Modern lifestyle & culture

In addition to being exposed to high levels of external toxins, we are also exposed to high levels of internal toxins from chronic stress, emotional trauma, and increasing isolation and loneliness…especially during the Covid pandemic. All alone, stress can disrupt our immune system, increase inflammation and increase the risk for cancer. It can even influence genetic expression. When we add on the burden of emotional wounds and lack of community or support, we create an environment (terrain) in our body that makes it easier for cancer to grow.


The work environment for many people under 50 today involves long hours indoors, usually in front of a computer screen, sometimes with a long commute in traffic. We’re spending more time under artificial lighting, disconnected from nature and the sun, and with chronic EMF exposure from the electronics and Wi-Fi all around us. We also spend most of the day sitting, which has now become the new smoking in terms of risk for disease. Sitting for long periods increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and metabolic dysfunction, which in turn can increase the risk of cancer.


Then, once we leave work, we may come home to sit some more — in front of the TV, our phones, computers or gaming equipment. We pair that with take-out food or something processed and easy to heat up. We may stay up late in front of our blue screens, which disrupts our circadian rhythms, causing poor sleep — only to wake up early to get back to work. Sleep is a time for healing and repair. Detoxification, autophagy (the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells to generate newer, healthier cells) and immune regeneration occur during sleep. When we miss out on healthy sleep, the body begins to degrade, and again, we set the stage for cancer to grow.


I say “we” in this picture I’ve painted because it is the kind of life most of my generation —and those who are younger — lead. I lived this life, too, before my family and I made a bold decision to move to France and change our way of life. Although a single lifestyle factor may not be enough to cause increased rates of cancer for an entire generation of people, the combination of factors certainly is.


3. Immune dysfunction

Although many physiological systems are involved in cancer prevention, the immune system is our primary defense. It recognizes, manages and disables cancer cells before they can progress. When the immune system is impaired, cancer cells multiply unchecked and overwhelm the immune system.


What impairs the immune system? All of the factors mentioned thus far: toxins, stress, poor sleep, poor diet and lack of exercise and time outside. Other culprits include microbiome imbalance, leaky gut and chronic infections (like parasites, Epstein Barr, Lyme, herpes, H. pylori, HPV, etc.). One hallmark sign of a disrupted immune system is autoimmunity. I do not think it’s a coincidence that autoimmune diseases are also on the rise. They share many contributing factors with cancer and premature aging, and some researchers believe they are actually just two sides of the same coin.

Let’s change course

I firmly believe that we can turn the tide on cancer and begin to lower these alarming statistics. In an extensive review of early-onset cancers in Nature, the researchers found that the early life “exposome,” which encompasses an individual’s diet, lifestyle, weight, environmental exposures and microbiome, has changed substantially in the last several decades. The data now show that the risk for early-onset cancer increases with each generation, something known as the “birth cohort effect.” This essentially means that every new generation has an increased risk for cancer compared to the generation preceding them.


The good news is that we can shift our exposome (diet, lifestyle and chemical exposures) today to decrease these risks in the future. Ultimately, there is A LOT we can do to stay healthy and cancer-free AND help our kids remain cancer-free. Here’s a summary of where you can start:

  1. Take an honest inventory of all your toxic exposures. Remove the ones you can and minimize your exposure to the rest. Here’s a list to help you get started.

  2. Remove ultra-processed food from your diet and replace it with a nutrient-dense, whole-food, plant-heavy diet. Start with real food here.

  3. Optimize your detoxification pathways with a plant-focused diet, sufficient hydration, body movement, sweating, fasting and more. Get more ideas here.

  4. Get outside every day, ideally first thing in the morning, to get sun in your eyes to support better circadian rhythms. Limit your exposure to light and electronics in the evening; ideally, don’t use electronics for at least one hour before bed to support deep and restorative sleep.

  5. Go to bed earlier and ensure you get at least seven hours of sleep every night. Here are some ideas if you’re currently struggling with sleep.

  6. Take walking, standing and stretch breaks during your workday and, if possible, get a standing desk so you’re not sitting all day. Schedule time during your day to move your body. Bonus points if it’s outside!

  7. Add support strategies to your day to minimize stressors and help release tension and stress (e.g., exercise and meditation). Reach out to friends and family members and build a strong support network.

Another critical factor is to raise awareness about your unique risk factors for cancer.

  • Take our Cancer Risk Questionnaire on the seven systems of cancer prevention and watch our Free Masterclass if you haven’t already. You can do both here. Address the root causes of cancer while taking steps to optimize your systems of cancer prevention.

  • Get an annual physical that includes some blood markers that help assess the “terrain” in which cancer can grow: blood sugar, insulin, inflammation, etc. Here is a list of labs I encourage my clients to check annually:

    • C-Reactive Protein

    • Homocysteine

    • Ferritin, Serum

    • GGT

    • Hemoglobin A1C

    • Insulin, Fasting

    • Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1)

    • Magnesium

    • Vitamin B12 and Folate

    • Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy

    • {plus} standard CBC, Metabolic, Lipid and Thyroid panels

  • Pay attention to changes in your body: constant fatigue, blood in your stool, a lump that doesn’t go away (in your breast or somewhere else) or, honestly, any other change in your system that intuitively doesn’t feel right to you. The most important thing you can do is know your body and trust your intuition!

Many free resources are available on the Ground & Root website to help you take action. Start with the free masterclass and Cancer Risk Questionnaire to determine your high-risk areas, and feel free to reach out for a free strategy session if you’d like to chat more about diving deeper into your unique cancer risks and designing a personalized plan to help you stay cancer-free.


Dionne Detraz, RD

Dionne Detraz is an Integrative and Functional Cancer Dietitian, author of The Cancer Diet Cookbook and founder of Ground & Root Cancer Nutrition, an online dietetics practice specializing in functional nutrition for cancer survivors. Dionne’s practice was born out of the need to help cancer survivors fully ground themselves in the healing process while working to uncover the potential root causes of their diagnosis by using a holistic mind-body-spirit approach. Ground & Root offers holistic support at each stage of the healing journey (during treatment, post-treatment and recurrence prevention). Dionne’s experience includes over 20 years working in health education, wellness and nutrition. She has worked in conventional medical settings, infusion clinics, an integrative medicine clinic and, for the last seven years, in private practice. Her education and experience include a unique blend of Western medical nutrition therapy and integrative and functional medicine. She brings training and experience from the University of California San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Kaiser Permanente and MD Anderson Cancer Center.


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