‘Disturbing’ spike in youth cancer

Michelle Wisbey

12/03/2024 4:54:14 PM

Researchers have revealed a ‘significant increase’ in rates of young-onset pancreatic cancer, blaming the rise on increasingly unhealthy lifestyles.

Person receiving abdominal ultrasound.
Currently, around 1.18 per 100,000 Australians are diagnosed with youth-onset pancreatic cancer.

An alarming new trend is taking shape across Australia – and much of the world – with patients as young as 15 being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more often than ever before.
According to a new global study from Flinders University, rates of young-onset pancreatic cancer (YOPC) in patients aged 15–49 have skyrocketed over the past two decades.
Moreover, it found the rates of diagnosis, death, and disability-adjusted life years were significantly greater in wealthier nations, compared to those with lower levels of income, education, and fertility. 
Flinders University Associate Professor Savio Barreto said he now believes lifestyle factors are a driving force behind the trend.
‘While global efforts to reduce smoking and tobacco use might be responsible for reducing the disability-adjusted life years attributable to the disease in younger populations, the impact of obesity and raised fasting plasma glucose is increasingly relevant to us in Australasia and Oceania,’ he said.
‘[These factors] present an area for public health action if we are to combat this very disturbing trend in one of the deadliest cancers now affecting the young.’
For the study, researchers analysed the Global Health Data Exchange in May 2023 to paint a picture of worldwide trends.
The study found that while Australia as a country has overall lower rates of YOPC when compared to similar nations, 1.18 per 100,000 people, that gap is closing.
Concerningly, rates in the Northern Territory are around three times higher than the Australian average, at about 3.15 people per 100,000.
Across the world, the United Arab Emirates had the highest rate of YOPC, followed by Monaco, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Greenland.
Meanwhile, the countries with the five lowest incidence rates were Ethiopia, Guinea, Niger, Somalia, and Chad.
‘The results highlight the need not only for ongoing action against tobacco smoking, but it also supports an urgent need to address obesity and metabolic syndrome in order to reduce their impact on one of the deadliest cancers afflicting young people,’ the study found.
Pancreatic cancer has traditionally been more common in people aged over 50, and rarely exhibits symptoms until an advanced stage.
It remains one of the most lethal cancers in the world due to a lack of available treatments, with only 10% of patients surviving more than five years after diagnosis.
To assist practitioners, a pancreatic cancer tool was created in 2022 which evaluates individual or combinations of signs, symptoms, and risk factors to help indicate the suggested urgency of investigation.
Moving forward, Flinders University researchers say their study’s confirmation that lifestyle factors impact pancreatic cancer risk should lead to new targeted strategies aimed at prevention.
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