Cancer in Young Adults

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Finding cancer in young adults

Cancers in young adults 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 young adults 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 transition, when people begin living on their own and establish their own identity and lifestyle. Concerns other than health such as going to college, starting a career, spending time with friends, dating, or starting a family are often higher on the priority list at this time. Many young adults might not even have a regular doctor.
  • Financial issues can affect whether or not a person goes to the doctor. For example, people in this age group are less likely to have health insurance, which can contribute to not wanting to see a doctor right away.
  • 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 young adults can be found early, when treatment is more likely to be successful.

Screening for cancers in young adults

Screening is testing for a disease such as cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms. Cancers are not common between ages 20 and 39, so there aren’t many widely recommended screening tests to look for cancer in people in this age group who are not at increased risk.

The risk of cervical cancer rises in a woman’s 20s and 30s, so the American Cancer Society and many other groups recommend that women get screened for cervical cancer with Pap tests starting at age 21. (See Cervical Cancer Prevention and Early Detection for more details.)

Women in their 20s and 30s should have a breast exam by a health professional during routine health exams, preferably at least every 3 years. They should also be aware of how their breasts normally look and feel, and should have any changes checked by their doctor. Most expert groups don’t recommend that women have mammograms or other imaging tests to look for breast cancer until at least age 40. But screening might be recommended earlier for some women who are at high risk because of a strong family history or other factors. (See Breast Cancer Early Detection for more details.)

Some types of cancer can be found during a physical exam at a routine doctor visit. The American Cancer Society recommends that men and women aged 20 and over be checked for cancers of the thyroid, testicles, ovaries, lymph nodes, mouth, throat, and skin during their routine doctor visits.

Some people might also want to do regular (often monthly) self-exams to look for early signs of cancer. For example, women might want to do regular breast self-exams, men might want to do regular testicular self-exams, and both men and women might want to check their skin on a regular basis. While the American Cancer Society does not have formal recommendations on these self-exams, one advantage of doing them is that they can help you become more familiar with your body and more likely to notice any changes. Whether or not you choose to do self-exams, you should report any changes you notice to a health professional right away so that they can be checked.

Some people have a higher risk of 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 breast, 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. Talk to your doctor if you’re not sure about your risk or what tests might be right for you.

Possible signs and symptoms of cancer in young adults

As noted above, there are many reasons why cancers in 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, breast, 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 young adults?” 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: 02/18/2014
Last Revised: 02/18/2014