Cancer in Adolescents

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Finding cancer in adolescents

Cancers in teens are often found later than they are in other age groups. There are a number of reasons why the diagnosis of cancer might be delayed:

  • Most teens tend to be fairly healthy and might not go to the doctor unless they feel they really need to. This is especially true in young men.
  • These years are often a time of growing independence, when young people begin to establish their own identity and lifestyle. Concerns other than health such as spending time with friends, dating, working, or getting ready for college are often higher on the priority list at this time. Many teens might not even have a regular doctor.
  • Even when a young person does go to the doctor with a concern, cancer is not usually high on the list of probable causes because it’s not common in this age group. Doctors might be more likely to think symptoms like pain or feeling tired are due to other causes rather than cancer, which might delay the diagnosis.

Still, some cancers in teens can be found early, when treatment is more likely to be successful.

Screening for cancers in teens

Screening is testing for a disease such as cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms. Cancers are not common between ages 15 and 19, so there are no widely recommended screening tests to look for cancer in people in this age group who are not at increased risk.

Some people have a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer because of a strong family history or because of specific gene changes they inherit from a parent. These might put a person at higher risk for cancers such as melanoma of the skin or colorectal, thyroid, or other cancers. These people may need careful, regular exams or tests starting at an early age to look for signs of cancer.

Possible signs and symptoms of cancer in teens

As noted above, there are many reasons why cancers in teens and young adults might not be recognized right away. Sometimes the early symptoms of cancer can overlap with those from much more common illnesses or injuries. Young people might feel run down, get sick, or have bumps or bruises that could mask the early signs of cancer. But it’s important to be aware of the common signs and symptoms of cancer. These can include:

  • An unusual lump or swelling in the neck, 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

More information on common symptoms for specific cancers can be found in the section “What are cancers in adolescents?” Other symptoms are also possible, depending on the type of cancer.

Many of these symptoms are much more likely to be caused by something other than cancer. Still, if you have any of these symptoms – especially if they don’t go away or they get worse – see a doctor.

Seeing a doctor

When you see the doctor, he or she will ask about your medical history and your symptoms and will examine you. Depending on your symptoms, special types of exams or tests might be needed. The doctor might order blood tests, imaging tests (like x-rays and CT scans), or other tests to help figure out if your symptoms are caused by cancer or something else.

If your doctor thinks your symptoms might be caused by cancer, you will probably be referred to a specialist for more exams and tests. The type of doctor you see will depend on your age and what type of cancer is suspected.

In some cases, if an abnormal lump or tumor is found, the doctor might need to remove some or all of it so that it can be checked under a microscope for cancer cells. This is known as a biopsy. For most types of cancer, a biopsy is needed to confirm the diagnosis. Biopsies can be done in many ways, ranging from removing a small number of cells with a thin, hollow needle to more extensive surgery. The type of biopsy used will depend on where the lump or tumor is.

Last Medical Review: 02/13/2014
Last Revised: 02/13/2014