Cancer researchers say more people are developing some types of cancer at a younger age than previous generations.
[ALSO READ: Atrium Health PINK DAY: Breast cancer resources]
Channel 9 talks to several cancer patients about their journey to recovery, and an oncologist about why they are seeing improvements and what can be done to reduce risk.
Courtney Wheatley noticed something unusual on her body in January 2021 while taking a shower.
“I would just dye myself with soap,” says Whiteley, a breast cancer survivor. “I didn’t even do a self-examination or anything, and I felt a lump.”
She wasn’t old enough to start thinking about getting a mammogram, and she didn’t know of any family history of breast cancer.
“I was a bit shocked at first,” Whiteley said. “That is the second stage.”
Whiteley is part of a troubling national trend.
Charts from the National Cancer Institute show that the incidence of cancer in people between the ages of 15 and 39 has increased by nearly 30% since the 1980s.
In this age group, the American Cancer Society says breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women and testicular cancer in men.
Many other types of cancer, such as colorectal, thyroid, kidney, pancreatic, and skin cancers, are also on the rise.
[ALSO READ: Dare to Live: Local mom who beat breast cancer raising awareness abroad]
There doesn’t seem to be one clear cause, but doctors say a person’s lifestyle can be a factor.
“The increase in obesity in adolescents and young adults, especially those with colon cancer, is clearly a risk factor,” said Dr. Kim Strickland, breast cancer oncologist at Novant Health. “Also, it may be some environmental cause, so for melanoma, for example, the possibility of increased sun exposure.”
Strickland is leading a new program at Novant Health that will specifically support a younger cancer patient population.
“If you think about the type of patient between the ages of 15 and 39, these are young adults who are preparing to enter the workforce, start their lives, get married, and think about their children,” says Strickland.
Wheatley has two daughters, and says it made it easier to decide about a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and treatment plan.
“I feel so lucky to have finished breastfeeding,” says Whiteley. “I’m done holding my daughter, because I feel it will be a very big struggle if you still want to breastfeed your children.”
The program will also help address the long-term effects of cancer treatment, which tend to be unique to younger patients.
[ALSO READ: ‘Full of blessings’: Local teacher, breast cancer survivor shares story of hope]
“Infertility is a big problem, unfortunately, impotence, a heart problem,” says Strickland.
“I wish they lowered the age a little bit for early mammograms,” Whiteley said.
The American Cancer Society lowered the age to undergo a colonoscopy because colon cancer is increasing in people younger than 50 years.
I lowered the recommended age from 50 to 45, and it may have saved Stephanie Priolo’s life.
He was 47 years old when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and has no family history of it.
“Grateful,” said Priio. “Definitely grateful and I just wanted to share with people, take care of yourself. Get your offer when the time is right.”
The American Cancer Society says the best way to reduce your risk of developing cancer is to maintain a healthy weight, reduce alcohol and avoid smoking. Pay attention to your body and don’t hesitate if you feel something isn’t right. The new Novant Health Program is expected to be launched early next year.
(Watch the video below: Colleagues and loved ones gather around a local doctor battling stage 4 colon cancer)