Cancer in young people

01 November 2010

Canadian Cancer Society led research says that young people with cancer (aged 15-29) have made impressive gains in survival, but more needs to be done to meet the unique challenges of cancer in this age group.

The report – Canadian adolescents and young adults with cancer – a critical opportunity for improving coordination and level of care – was published online November 29, 2010 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The report examines current Canadian data on cancer in teenagers and young adults and reviews the literature on the obstacles faced by this age group in receiving care.

“We are pleased that there have been impressive gains in survival for young people with cancer,” says Dr Prithwish De, lead investigator and an epidemiologist with the Society. “However, the unique healthcare issues faced by young people with cancer can affect their prospects for survival and quality of life.”

Statistics from the research report

  • Young people with cancer account for about 2% of all patients diagnosed with cancer in Canada.
  • On average, there were 2,252 new cancer cases among young people per year in Canada from 2002 to 2006.
  • From 2001 to 2005, the overall five-year survival for this age group in Canada was 85%. By comparison, the survival for young Europeans (aged 15-24) diagnosed with cancer between 1995 and 2002 was 87%, and ranged from 84% in Northern Ireland to 92% in Italy.
  • The overall age-standardized cancer incidence rate for young people with cancer in Canada rose slightly between 1997 and 2006.
  • For young males the incidence rate rose 0.9 % per year; for females 1.7 % per year
  • The overall age-standardized death rate for this age group in Canada declined significantly between 1996 and 2005.

o For young males the death rate dropped by 3.2% per year; for females 1.7% per year

“The relatively small number of young people with cancer does not accurately convey the huge impact this disease has on the patients, their families and society,” says Dr De. “Cancer is not something they were expecting to deal with at this stage in their lives. Educational pursuits and careers may be sidetracked and a cancer diagnosis could put a strain on relationships.”


Challenges to improving cancer care for young adults are:

  • Timely diagnosis: Healthcare providers, as well as young people, need to be more aware that cancer can affect all ages. Being vigilant can allow a cancer diagnosis to be made early when treatment is most effective.
  • Prompt referral: Timely referral to specialist care is important so that young people with aggressive but treatable cancers (such as testicular cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma) can benefit from comprehensive care and access to clinical trials.
  • Clinical trials: While the overall cancer survival rate for young people is 85%, they have had slower gains in survival compared to older and younger age groups because of low participation in clinical trials. Taking part in a clinical trial allows access to cutting-edge treatments and closer monitoring of patients, which often lead to better survival. About 10–20% of Canadian teenagers with cancer take part in clinical trials compared to nearly 60% of children in the US.
  • Peer support: The treatment environment for young cancer patients should include patients of similar age so young patients feel less isolated and discussion of such topics as body image, intimacy and sexuality can occur with peers.
  • Coordination of care: Coordination of hospital and community care for young survivors can support their re-entry into society following treatment.

“Every person with cancer deserves the best care and strong support,” says Dr De.

To find out more about the Society’s services, including those for young people with cancer, call the Society’s Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.