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Different shaped cancer cells Credit: Dr Chris Bakal

Our Science Surgery series answers your cancer science questions. 

Rich asked: Does cancer attack every age group? 

Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer. So whether it’s a friend, family member or your own diagnosis, cancer touches all of us, no matter how old.  

But when it comes to who develops cancer, age plays a significant role. 

We see cases in every age group but many more cases in older people, says Dr Katrina Brown, Cancer Research UK’s statistical information and risk manager. 

“In the UK the highest rate of cancer cases is seen in the 85 to 89 age group,” says Brown. “Our risk of being diagnosed with cancer increases as we get older she adds. And more than a third of all cancer cases in the UK are diagnosed in people aged 75 and over.  

People under the age of 49 are much less likely to develop the disease, with only a tenth of cancer cases overall in the UK each year being diagnosed in people aged 25 to 49. 

These stats can largely be explained by biology. Cancer develops because of a build-up of DNA damage in genes that control how a cell grows. The older you are, the more your cells will have divided, increasing the chances that DNA errors will occur. As life goes on, you’re also exposed more to other factors that can damage your DNA, such as tobacco smoke and excess body weight.

And because cells are more likely to have more genetic faults as a person gets older, it’s more likely that some of these errors may lead to cancer. 

Read more in our Science Surgery: What factors lead a cell to becoming cancerous? 

Are some cancers more common in certain age groups? 

Even though overall cancer is much more common in older people, there are three common cancer types that are more likely to diagnosed in younger people than older people.  

The rates of people being diagnosed are highest at age 25 to 29 for cervical cancer, at age 30 to 34 for testicular cancer, and at age 0 to 4 for a type of blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukaemiaBut those are really the only common cancer types where the older age groups don’t have the main share of the cases, says Brown. 

Cervical cancer is more likely to be diagnosed around this age because virtually all cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), and exposure to this virus usually begins in adolescence. Cervical screening is offered to people with a cervix from the age of 25, which helps pick these cancers up at an early stage and also prevent future cases developing.

“For testicular cancer and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, we are less clear why peak incidence rates are in younger people, because there’s limited evidence on the causes of these diseases, says Brown. 

Children’s cancers differ from adult cancers 

The cancer types that children and young people are typically diagnosed with are different to those most common in adultsThe most common cancer types in children are leukaemiaslymphomastumours of the central nervous system and tumours in and around the brain” says Brown. But they are still rare. Each year around 160 children per million in the UK are diagnosed with any form of cancer. And biologically, these tumours can be quite different to those diagnosed in adults. 

In fact, the number of cancer cases in children aged 0 to 14 and young people aged 15 to 24 each make up less than 1% of the total number of cancer cases diagnosed in the UK each year.  

For almost every cancer type you look at, older adults are still the biggest contributor of cases.

– Dr Katrina Brown, Cancer Research UK

For almost every cancer type you look at, older adults are still the biggest contributor of cases, says Brown. And this is an important distinction to make. Brown says that one misconception she’s come across in her work is that leukaemia only affects children. “That’s absolutely not true, she says. 

Reducing cancer risk 

Age is the biggest risk factor for cancerAnd pinning down the causes in younger people can be hard. Some will have inherited faulty genes that increase their risk of developing particular types of cancer. While for others, it may just be bad luck. 

We can’t always control random changes to our genes as we get older or those passed down the family line. But around 4 in 10 cancers are preventable, so there’s definitely a few things we can do to stack the odds in our favourNot smoking and keeping a healthy weight are the best places to start. 

Gabi 

We’d like to thank Rich for asking this question. If you’d like to ask us something, post a comment below or email sciencesurgery@cancer.org.uk with your question and first name. 

Comments

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Penny August 15, 2019

There should be more walk-in localized sites to have cancer checks and treatment of warts etc. It’s ridiculous I have to travel more than 30 miles for a minor procedure! I think if people could just walk-in a lot more cases would be diagnosed much earlier and be more treatable. This would actually save the NHS and Government money overall. Not to forget the “human costs and heartbreak” when loved ones die from a treatable cancer. In my opinion a much more Holistic approach is needed.

Gabriella Beer August 14, 2019

Hi Angela, Thank you for your question on bathing and skin cancer. Dirty skin is not a cause of cancer. The main cause of skin cancer is too much ultraviolet light from the sun and sunbeds. You can find out more here. Best wishes, Gabi, Cancer Research UK

Nichola August 13, 2019

I was 43 when I was diagnosed with stage 3 brain tumour. My mother aged 78 has just been diagnosed with multiple cancers in her body, so yes cancer can affect any age.

Nichola August 13, 2019

I was diagnosed with stage 3 oligadendronglioma 9 years ago. I receive surgery for its removal & 30 sessions of radiotherapy. Is my cancer likely to come back?

Adrian Purdy August 13, 2019

Yes I had kidney cancer at 52 went into hospital to get my appendix removed and when they scanned me they found I had cancer on my right kidney had to have it removed.

Gemma kelleher August 12, 2019

my son’s father was 42 when he passed away from a brain tumor it was too late there wasn’t anything that could be done within 2wks he was gone yet he had no signs was never i.ll how can that happen without showing symptoms it must have been growing for quiet a long time it was growing into his brain

Gemmakelleher August 12, 2019

will there ever be a cure my son has had his tumor removed twice in 17months how many more ops will he have to have until they can do it any more

Karen Valenti August 12, 2019

Yes cancer attacks all age groups. It attacked me when l was 60 Lung cancer.

Karen Valenti August 12, 2019

Yes cancer attacks all age groups. It attacked me when l was 60 Lung cancer. Lung cancer.

Karen Valenti August 12, 2019

Yes cancer attacks all age groups. It attacked me when l was 60

Alan read August 12, 2019

Yes cancer can affect anybody.
As a man I had breast cancer and had a mastectomy.

Margaret Mills August 12, 2019

All age groups, but more likely as you age, I had cancer of the cervix at 35 and breast cancer at 60

Julie Athey August 12, 2019

I had cervical cancer

Bryn August 12, 2019

Im sorry cancer does’nt care what age you are

Royston Leonard August 10, 2019

My wife died of cancer of the connective tissues. She was a dressmaker, could her cancer be connected to handling fabrics – the dressing in fabrics for instance?

Angela Sedgwick August 3, 2019

Can a lack of bathing and showering cause skin cancer to develop