Young Adult Cancer: How to Avoid Misdiagnosis

Cancer patient reclining on pillows and holding hands with another person

Warning signs are often mistaken for common illnesses, but knowing them could save a life.

There is a lack of expectation that young adults get cancer, yet it is the number one cause of disease-related death in this age group. Even when symptoms arise, they are usually chalked up to more common ailments. Because of this, patients aged 15 – 39 years old are often misdiagnosed during the early stages of cancer — when the disease is most treatable. There are several factors that contribute to this delay.

  • Most young adults are fairly healthy and don’t go to the doctor unless it’s urgent. This is especially true in young men.
  • Young adults sometimes hold an “it won’t happen to me” mentality.
  • Young adult years are a time of transition and new independence. Establishing a general practitioner is usually not high on the priority list.
  • People in this age group are less likely to have health insurance, which can contribute to postponing doctors appointments.
  • Symptoms like pain or fatigue are common in teenage and young adult years and could mask other early signs of cancer.
  • There is a misguided assumption that cancer is a disease of older people. 

Young adults get rare and aggressive forms of cancer and improvements in survival rates have lagged compared to children and older adults. Recognizing symptoms early may lead to a diagnosis sooner, which may optimize treatment options. Education is the crucial step to early detection.

Possible Symptoms of Young Adult Cancer

It’s important to recognize the common warning signs of cancer even though many of these symptoms are unrelated to cancer. Still, if you experience any of these symptoms — especially if they don’t go away or they get worse — see a doctor.

  • An unusual lump or swelling in the neck, breast, belly, testicle, or elsewhere
  • Unexplained tiredness and loss of energy
  • Easy bruising
  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Ongoing pain in one part of the body
  • Unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away
  • Frequent headaches, often with vomiting
  • Sudden eye or vision changes
  • Loss of appetite or unplanned weight loss
  • A new mole or other spot on the skin, or one that changes in size, shape, or color

Most Common Young Adult Cancers

The types of cancers commonly seen in young adults are not unique to this age group, but they may behave differently than when they are found in children or older adults.

Screening for Young Adult Cancer

Because cancers are rare in this age group, screening tests are limited for people who are not high risk. However, there are steps you can take to improve your chances of early detection.

  • Screening for cervical cancer with Pap tests should start at age 21.
  • Every three years, women in their 20s and 30s should have a breast exam during routine physicals. Be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel, and have any changes checked by a doctor.
  • During routine physicals, men and women aged 20 and over should be checked for cancers of the thyroid, testicles, ovaries, lymph nodes, mouth, throat, and skin.
  • Self-exams are a great way to spot early signs of cancer. For example, women should perform regular breast self-exams, men should perform regular testicular self-exams, and both men and women should check their skin on a regular basis. This will help you become more familiar with your body and more likely to notice any changes. 
  • If cancer runs in your family, you may be at higher risk for cancers such as melanoma, breast, ovarian, colorectal, thyroid, as well as others. You will need careful screening starting at an early age to look for signs of cancer. If you are not sure about your risk, talk with your doctor to learn more about the best options for you.

Overall, cancer remains rare in young adults. But over the years we have learned that young adults may have a delay in diagnosis because concerning symptoms are not addressed in a timely manner. Get to know your body and reach out to your doctor when something doesn’t seem right.