During a person’s early twenties, there’s a certain tendency to feel invincible. Between weekend benders, hours of binging on Netflix, and the occasional piece of cake for breakfast, health risks are rarely at the forefront of a twenty-somethings mind. But, although we’re less at risk in our twenties than we will be in decades to come, we are still more at risk for cancer than when we were children. Thus, twenty-somethings should at least have some basic knowledge about what cancer is, what the risk factors are, and how to effectively screen for signs and symptoms.
Cancer is a complex disease (actually, it’s technically multiple diseases) which can affect any part of the body. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), some of the most prevalent varieties of cancer in people ages 15 to 39 are lymphoma, leukemia, germ cell tumors (like testicular cancer), melanoma (skin cancer), breast, cervical, liver, thyroid, and colorectal cancers.
Unfortunately, some risk factors for developing cancer are out of our control. For example, the top risk factor for cancer listed by the NCI is growing older. We have youth on our side for now, but as we age, our risk only grows. Another factor we can’t do anything about is our family history. If you’re curious about how your family history impacts your risk, take the Hereditary Cancer Quiz to find out.
However, we can control some of the risk factors of developing cancer. Less ultraviolet (UV) radiation, tobacco, and alcohol, and more healthy foods and exercise will greatly reduce your chances.
It’s widely held that early detection saves lives. Mammograms are recommended for women above 40, but also for younger women with a family history of breast cancer. Additionally, the Pap test (everyone’s favorite, I know) can detect abnormal cells, like those caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a major risk factor for cervical cancer. It’s recommended that women begin having Pap tests three years after first having sexual intercourse, or by age twenty-one (whichever is first). Yep, even women who don’t have sex with men.
We should also take the time to examine ourselves. A monthly self-breast exam is easy to perform in the shower or before getting dressed in the morning. In general, stay in tune with your body, paying attention to abnormalities on your skin, irregular periods, joint pain, or any other changes. These symptoms are not specific to cancer, but it’s wise to speak with your doctor if symptoms persist.
If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Additionally, if you have been diagnosed with cancer, know someone who has, or are simply interested in learning about living with cancer as a young adult, Everything Changes by Kairol Rosenthal is a great read.
No matter how many wheat grass shots we consume or yoga classes we attend, the risk of disease can never be completely eliminated. But although we may not be invincible, staying informed and in tune with our bodies is the next best line of defense.