Cancer is a major global health concern, but it’s typically associated with older age. However, in recent years, there has been a clear rise in younger individuals who have early-onset cancer. In this article, we will break down the findings of a study conducted in 2019 to discover why early-onset cancer is steadily increasing.

What is Early-Onset Cancer?

Early-onset cancer, as the name suggests, refers to cancer that occurs in individuals younger than 50 years old. While cancer is more commonly associated with older adults, the incidence of cancer among younger individuals has been steadily increasing worldwide.

The Study’s Purpose

Based on the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) 2019 data, the study investigated the incidence, deaths, disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), and risk factors for 29 different early-onset cancer groups. These cancers were studied across 204 countries and regions.

Key Findings

  • Alarming Increase in Incidence and Mortality: Between 1990 and 2019, the global incidence of early-onset cancer increased by a staggering 79.1%, while the number of early-onset cancer-related deaths rose by 27.7%.
  • Most Deadly Cancers: Early-onset breast cancer, tracheal, bronchus and lung cancer, stomach cancer, and colorectal cancer showed the highest mortality and DALYs in 2019. These cancers pose significant health risks to younger individuals.
  • Variances Across Regions: The study found significant variations in early-onset cancer burden between regions and countries. High-middle and middle Sociodemographic Index (SDI) regions had the highest burden of early-onset cancer, emphasizing the importance of socio-economic factors in cancer risk.
  • The United Arab Emirates (1127.6%), Qatar (1089.5%) and Saudi Arabia (896.0%) exhibited the sharpest increases in the number of incident cases from 1990 to 2019. Overall, the most pronounced change in the number of deaths and DALYs cases was observed in the United Arab Emirates (850.6% and 803.7%)

The sharp rise in the incidence of early-onset cancers can be seen in a slightly positive light because a small percentage is due to the uptake of screening and early detection in developed countries and regions. This means that more individuals were diagnosed and treated at an earlier stage. However, only a few countries and certain types of cancer, such as cervical, breast, and colorectal cancer, have screening strategies available.

Aside from this, researchers found the rise in incidence to be promoted by Western diet and lifestyle risk factors.

This is why it’s essential for future screening programs to be widely accessible and able to detect the majority of cancer types.

Gender Differences

The burden of early-onset cancer varies between men and women:

  • In 2019, breast cancer was the most burdensome cancer for women, while tracheal, bronchus, and lung (TBL) cancer ranked highest for men.
  • Women generally had a higher burden of early-onset cancer in terms of both mortality and disease burden, particularly in low-middle and low-SDI regions.

Regional Disparities

  • The incidence of early-onset cancer was highest in high-income North America and lowest in Western Sub-Saharan Africa in 2019. Currently, cancer control methods and preventative measures such as cancer screening are inadequate in Africa, which could be contributing factors to Africa’s low ranking for early-onset cancer. Overall, the more developed the country and region, the higher the incidence of early-onset cancer.
  • Oceania had the highest age standardized DALYs rates, while high-income Asia Pacific had the lowest.

Risk Factors

Understanding the risk factors associated with early-onset cancer is crucial:

  • For early-onset breast cancer, alcohol use, tobacco smoking, and dietary factors like a diet high in red meat were significant risk factors.
  • It’s important to note that early-onset breast cancer also increased in some countries without the introduction of routine screening. This suggests that a high BMI, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption and some reproductive factors may have contributed to this increase.
  • Tobacco smoking was the most critical risk factor for early-onset tracheal, bronchus, and lung (TBL) cancer.
  • For early-onset colorectal cancer, dietary risks, alcohol use, tobacco smoking, low physical activity, high body mass index (BMI), and high fasting plasma glucose were identified as risk factors.
  • Stomach cancer risk was associated with tobacco smoking and a diet high in sodium.

Future Projections

The study’s projections indicate that the global incidence and deaths of early-onset cancer are expected to increase by 31% and 21% in 2030, respectively. This highlights the accessible and sustainable action needed to address this growing health crisis. 


The rise of early-onset cancer is a serious global health concern, and its impact varies significantly across regions, genders, and cancer types. Risk factors like unhealthy diets, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption play a significant role. Encouraging a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, reduced tobacco and alcohol consumption, and regular physical activity, is essential in reducing the burden of early-onset cancer.

Additionally, proactive screening and prevention programs for individuals aged 40-49 can help catch cancer at its earliest stage, when there is a better chance of survival.

Researchers concluded,

“It is worth exploring whether early screening and prevention programmes for early-onset cancer should be expanded to include individuals aged 40–44 and 45–49.”

At RMDM, we are working hard to make early detection cancer screening as accessible as possible.

We are in the final preparations of launching our screening program in the healthcare hub of Dubai, UAE.

Our stake in the Doctor’s Center Polyclinic will establish our presence in the MENA region, allowing us to make early cancer detection accessible and available to all.

We are looking forward to collaborating with local hospitals and clinics and the oncology community to help raise awareness of the importance of early detection.