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Research identifies the most common cancers in teenagers and young adults

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 06 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:814
  1. Adrian O'Dowd
  1. London

    Cancers that disproportionately affect teenagers and young adults and their possible causes have been identified in new research. An analysis of 1.6 million cases of cancer in people aged up to 79 in England, in an eight year period, showed that cancers of the bone and specific types of ovarian and testicular cancers disproportionately affected young people aged between 13 and 24.

    The research, presented at last week's international conference on teenage and young adult cancer medicine, in London, analysed all invasive cancer cases that occurred between 1995 and 2003 and found that 14 000 affected teenagers and young adults.

    The cancers were osteosarcoma, Ewing's sarcoma, germ cell tumours of the testis and ovary, Hodgkin's lymphoma, certain rare soft tissue sarcomas (such as alveolar soft part sarcoma), and germ cell tumours in the brain.

    Cancer Research UK professorial fellow at the University of Manchester Jillian Birch, who led the analysis, said, “These can be regarded as ‘true'teenage and young adult cancers that typically occur specifically in this age group.”

    The pattern of incidence had implications for discovering and understanding the causes of these cancers, she added: “Having identified the very specific types that are teenage and young adult cancers, we are able to find clues as to why they get cancer. These point to infections, adolescent growth spurts, hormones, and other growth and development factors as being among the most probable causes.”

    For osteosarcoma, which mostly attacks the long bones of the arms and legs, the researchers speculated that pre-cancerous genetic changes happen in the bone tissue during childhood and that in periods of rapid growth in teenagers, more genetic damage takes place and turns these cells cancerous. Further international research was needed, she said, to investigate these potential causes.

    Tim Eden, the United Kingdom's first professor of teenage and youngadult cancer, appointed by charity the Teenage Cancer Trust, which organised the conference, said, “There are large sections of the medical community [that] are not engaging in the process of improving research, treatment, and care for teenagers and young adults. We all need to be involved in this, talking to each other and coordinating our efforts“.

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