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Cancers are often found later (at a more advanced stage) in teens than they are in other age groups. There are a number of reasons the diagnosis of cancer might be delayed:
Still, some cancers in teens can be found early, when treatment is more likely to be successful.
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 they've inherited a specific gene mutation 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. People with these mutations may need careful, regular exams or tests starting at an early age to look for signs of cancer.
There are many reasons 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:
Other symptoms are also possible, depending on the type of cancer. See Types of Cancers that Develop in Adolescents. for more information on common symptoms for specific cancers.
Many of these symptoms are much more likely to be caused by something other than cancer. Still, if a teen has any of these symptoms – especially if they don’t go away or they get worse – it's important to have them checked by a doctor.
The doctor will ask about medical history and symptoms and will then do a physical exam. Depending on the 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 the symptoms are caused by cancer or something else.
If the doctor thinks the symptoms might be caused by cancer, your teen will probably be referred to a specialist for more exams and tests. The type of doctor will depend on your child's 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 for cancer cells with a microscope. 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 sample 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 and other factors.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Bleyer A. Young adult oncology: The patients and their survival challenges. CA Cancer J Clin. 2007;57:242-255.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Oncology. Version 1.2020. 2019. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/aya.pdf on September 26, 2019.
Last Revised: October 16, 2019
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