What are cancers in adolescents?
There is no strict definition of what separates “childhood cancers” from cancers in adolescents, or when exactly a person with cancer is considered an adult. But for statistics purposes, cancers in adolescents are often thought of as those that start between the ages of 15 and 19.
Cancer is not common in teens, but a wide variety of cancer types can occur in this age group, and treating these cancers can be challenging for a number of reasons.
The vast majority of cancers occur in older adults. The most common cancers in adults are skin, lung, colorectal, breast (in women), and prostate (in men). Many cancers in adults are linked to lifestyle-related risk factors (such as smoking, being overweight or obese, or lack of physical activity) or to other environmental factors. A small portion are strongly influenced by changes in a person’s DNA (gene mutations) that they inherit from their parents.
Cancers that start in childhood (before age 15) are much less common. The types of cancers that develop in children are often different from the types that develop in adults. Childhood cancers are often the result of DNA changes in cells that take place very early in life, sometimes even before birth. Unlike many cancers in adults, childhood cancers are not strongly linked to lifestyle or environmental risk factors.
The types of cancers that occur in adolescents are a mix of many of the types that can develop in children and adults.
The most common cancers in adolescents
The types of cancers seen in adolescents (ages 15 to 19) are not unique to this age group, but the most common types are different from those in young children or adults.
The most common cancers in adolescents are:
- Lymphomas (Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma)
- Leukemias (mostly acute lymphocytic leukemia [ALL] and acute myeloid leukemia [AML])
- Thyroid cancer
- Brain and spinal cord tumors
- Testicular cancer
- Bone tumors (osteosarcoma and Ewing tumors)
- Soft tissue tumors (sarcomas)
- Ovarian cancer
Many other types of cancer can occur in adolescents as well – these are just the most common types.
Lymphomas start in certain cells of the immune system called lymphocytes. These cancers most often affect lymph nodes and other lymph tissues, like the tonsils or thymus (a small organ in front of the heart). They can also affect the bone marrow and other organs. They cause different symptoms depending on where the cancer is. Most common symptoms include weight loss, fever, sweats, tiredness, and lumps (swollen lymph nodes) under the skin in the neck, armpit, or groin.
There are 2 main types of lymphoma:
- Hodgkin lymphoma (Hodgkin disease)
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
Both types can occur in adolescents.
Hodgkin lymphoma is most common in 2 age groups: early adulthood (age 15 to 40, usually people in their 20s) and late adulthood (after age 55). This type of cancer is similar in all age groups, including which types of treatment work best.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is less common than Hodgkin disease in teens, but the risk of NHL goes up as people get older. There are many types of NHL. Some of the types seen more often in adolescents tend to grow quickly and require intensive treatment, but they also tend to respond better to treatment than NHL in older adults.
Leukemias are cancers of the bone marrow and blood. They are the most common cancers in children, but they can occur at any age, and, in fact, most leukemias occur in older adults.
Most leukemias in adolescents are acute (fast growing) types such as acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Leukemia can cause tiredness, weakness, pale skin, bleeding or bruising, fever, weight loss, bone and joint pain, and other symptoms.
The outlook for most acute leukemias tends to be better the younger a patient is.
The risk of thyroid cancer tends to go up as people get older, but it’s often found at a younger age than most other adult cancers. It’s much more common in young women than in young men.
The most common symptom of thyroid cancer is a lump in the front of the neck. Most thyroid lumps are not cancer, but it’s important to have them checked to be sure. Other symptoms of thyroid cancer can include pain or swelling in the neck, trouble breathing or swallowing, and voice changes.
The chance of curing these cancers is usually very good.
For more information, see our document Thyroid Cancer.
Brain and spinal cord tumors
There are many types of brain and spinal cord tumors, and the treatment and outlook for each is different. In children, most brain tumors start in the lower parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum (which coordinates movement) or brain stem (which connects the brain to the spinal cord). Adults are more likely to develop tumors in upper parts of the brain. Tumors in adolescents can occur in either area. Spinal cord tumors are less common than brain tumors in all age groups.
Brain tumors can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, blurred or double vision, dizziness, seizures, trouble walking or handling objects, and other symptoms.
Testicular cancer most often develops in young men. About half of testicular cancers occur in men between the ages of 20 and 34, but it can occur at any age, including in teens.
Most often, the first symptom of testicular cancer is a lump on the testicle, or the testicle becomes swollen or larger. Some testicular tumors might be painful, but most of the time they are not. It’s important to have any lumps checked by a doctor as soon as possible so that the cause can be found.
In general, the outlook for testicular cancers is very good, and most of these cancers can be cured.
For more information, see our document Testicular Cancer.
Bone and soft tissue tumors (sarcomas)
Sarcomas are cancers that start in connective tissues such as muscles, bones, or fat cells. There are 2 main types of sarcoma: bone sarcomas and soft tissue sarcomas (which start in muscles, fat, blood vessels or other some body tissues). Sarcomas can develop at any age, but some types occur most often in older children and teens.
Bone sarcomas: The 2 most common types of bone cancer, osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma, are most common in teens. They often cause bone pain that gets worse at night or with activity. They can also cause swelling in the area around the bone.
Osteosarcoma usually starts in areas where the bone is growing quickly, such as near the ends of the long bones in the legs or arms. The most common places for Ewing sarcoma to start are the bones in the pelvis, the chest wall (such as the ribs or shoulder blades), or in the middle of the long leg bones.
Soft tissue sarcomas: These cancers can start in any part of the body, but they often develop in the arms or legs. Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that starts in cells that normally develop into skeletal muscles, is most common in children younger than 10, but it can also develop in teens and adults. Most other types of soft tissue sarcomas become more common as people age. Symptoms depend on where the sarcoma starts, and can include lumps (which might or might not cause pain), swelling, or bowel problems.
Although melanoma is more likely to occur in older adults, this is a cancer that’s also found in younger people, including adolescents. In fact, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30 (especially younger women). Melanoma that runs in families can occur at a younger age.
The most important warning sign for melanoma is a new spot on the skin or a spot that’s changing in size, shape, or color. A spot that looks different from all of the others on your skin can also be a warning and should be checked by a doctor.
The chance of curing a melanoma is often very good if it’s found and treated early. But if left alone, it can grow and spread quickly, which can make it much harder to treat.
For more information, see our document Skin Cancer – Melanoma.
Overall, ovarian cancer is much more common in older women. But some types of ovarian cancers, known as germ cell tumors, are more common in teens and young women.
Early ovarian cancer usually does not cause symptoms, but some teens and young women might feel full quickly when eating or have abnormal bloating, belly pain, or urinary symptoms. If such symptoms last more than a few weeks, they should be checked by a doctor.
For more information, see our document Ovarian Cancer.
Last Medical Review: 02/13/2014
Last Revised: 02/13/2014