Teenagers may be more susceptible than adults to certain types of cancer, including cervical, testicular and skin cancer, British scientists said Monday.
Certain cancer rates rose faster among adolescents in England than in adults from 1979 to 2003, according to research presented at the Teenage Cancer Trust's international conference in London. But researchers have yet to determine why the rates differ - whether the cause is genetic or hormonal, or if it stems from environment, lifestyle, or a mix of all three.
"The question is whether there are special reasons these young people are developing cancers that are usually only typical of adults," said Jillian Birch, director of Cancer Research United Kingdom's Paediatric and Familial Cancer Research Group.
Cervical cancer rates for all ages dropped across England in the last three decades - except in teenagers and young adults. Among teens aged 15 to 19, the rate increased by nearly 7 percent each year, according to the research funded by Cancer Research UK.
Skin cancer rates increased in all age groups, but most markedly among people in their 20s. The yearly rate increased by about 4 percent in people aged 20-24, compared with 2.5 percent for those aged 35-39.
The actual number of cases in England remains small, however, with an average of 40 cases of cervical cancer a year, and of 140 cases of skin cancer annually.
Mostly teens from affluent backgrounds
Most common cancer types in young people include testicular cancer, Hodgkin's disease and brain tumours. Birch and colleagues found that teens with these cancers were more likely to have come from affluent backgrounds.
But not all experts agreed that money and cancer could be easily linked.
"We need to find out what it is that is elevating teenagers' cancer risk," said Dr Scott Howard, a children's cancer expert at St. Jude's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Howard was not connected to the British research.
"Money may be a surrogate for behavioural factors," he said, suggesting for instance that teenagers with cars might drive more and walk less, thus lowering their sun exposure.
Experts said more research was needed into whether adolescents might be more genetically susceptible to certain cancers. Birch suggested hormones could factor into the increased rates of cervical and testicular cancer, possibly triggered by puberty.
Howard said that doctors and parents should work harder to ensure that children and teenagers are protected from preventable cancers such as melanoma or cervical cancer.
No immediate effect
He said it was far more dangerous to get sunburned as a child or to have early exposure to the viruses that cause cervical cancer. But because cancer usually takes years to develop, persuading teens to take the right precautions may be difficult.
"This is not like a car accident where you can immediately see the consequences of your actions," Howard said. "We will not see any benefit of anything we do today until 2030." – (Sapa-AP)
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