Cancer in Young Adults

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

Can cancers in young adults be prevented?

Most cancers in young adults do not have a known cause, so it’s not possible to prevent all of them. But some can be prevented.

Limiting lifestyle-related and environmental risk factors

Unlike with many cancers in older adults, lifestyle-related risk factors (such as smoking) are not thought to play much of a role in cancers in young adults. A few environmental factors, such as radiation exposure, have been linked with cancer risk in young adults. But some exposures may be unavoidable, such as if a child or teen needs radiation therapy to treat cancer.

There are some things you can do to lower your risk of getting certain kinds of cancer, such as:

While lifestyle-related and environmental risk factors don’t have a large effect on cancers in young adults, exposure to these risk factors during the teenage and young adult years can still increase a person’s risk of getting cancer as they get older. It’s important to develop and maintain healthy habits early in life, such as not smoking, staying at a healthy weight, keeping active, and eating a healthy diet. Healthy habits like these can also lower your risk for many other types of health problems later on.

Screening to help prevent certain cancers

Screening is testing for a disease such as cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms. Screening for some types of cancer, such as cervical and colorectal cancer, can actually help find some pre-cancer changes before they have a chance to become cancers.

The risk of cervical cancer rises in a woman’s 20s and 30s, so most expert groups recommend that women start being screened for cervical cancer at age 21 (see Cervical Cancer Prevention and Early Detection for more details).

Colorectal cancer is much more common in older adults, so screening is not recommended for people at average risk until age 50. But in people who are known to be at high risk, such as those with certain inherited conditions or a strong family history, screening might be recommended earlier – sometimes as early as the teen years (see Colorectal Cancer Early Detection for more details).

Vaccines to help prevent cancer

Some vaccines might lower a person’s risk of getting cancer. For instance, vaccines are available to help prevent infection with HPV (human papilloma virus), the group of viruses linked to cervical and some other cancers. These vaccines work best if they are given before a person becomes sexually active. For more information, see our documents HPV Vaccines and HPV and Cancer.

Preventive surgery

Rarely, people inherit gene changes that make them very likely to get a certain kind of cancer at an early age. In such cases, some people and their doctors might decide on surgery to remove an organ before cancer has a chance to develop there. Again, this is not common.


Last Medical Review: 02/18/2014
Last Revised: 02/18/2014