Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer

Cancers that affect people between the ages of 15 and 39 are often called adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancers. This age group makes up about 5 percent of people diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. Some cancers are more common in AYAs than others. Here is what you need to know about AYA cancers.1,2

Which cancers more commonly affect AYAs?

Although it is rare, AYAs can be diagnosed with most cancer types. The most common cancers in AYAs are:1

  • Brain cancer
  • Blood cancers (such as leukemia)
  • Bowel cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Sarcomas (such as bone cancer or soft tissue sarcomas)
  • Testicular cancer
  • Thyroid cancer

Who gets AYA cancers?

About 89,000 AYAs are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. Cancers such as bone cancer and lymphoma are more common in people ages 15 to 24. Breast and thyroid cancers are more common in people ages 25 to 39.1

AYA cancers are rare, but the number of AYAs with some cancer types is increasing.1

What are some risk factors for AYA cancer?

Some AYA cancers can be linked to a family history of having that cancer, especially if the relatives were diagnosed at a young age. Some AYA cancers, such as breast cancer, may also be linked to specific genetic disorders.3

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Certain viruses are linked to AYA cancer. This includes certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer.3

Fortunately, some AYA cancers can be prevented. For example, screening for cervical cancer allows doctors to find and remove cells that may become cancerous in the future. A vaccine has also been developed for HPV that can prevent cervical cancer.3

More research is needed to better understand AYA cancer risk.3

AYA cancer survival rates

About 85 percent of AYAs survive their cancer for 5 years or more. For most cancers, AYAs have better survival rates over 5 years compared to adults older than 39. However, the 5-year survival rate for AYA breast cancer is worse than that of older people.3

This is because AYAs are more likely to be diagnosed with later stage breast cancer. AYAs also are more likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive forms of breast cancer.3

How are AYA cancers managed and treated?

AYAs with cancer may be treated at pediatric or adult centers. Doctors may take into account certain unique factors when managing and treating AYA cancers. For example, they may consider how the treatment will affect a person's ability to have children.3

A cancer diagnosis as a young adult can impact many aspects of a person's life. It may impact them physically, psychologically, and emotionally. For this reason, AYA cancer treatment often includes mental health and well-being support.3

Long-term effects of AYA cancer and treatment

Some AYAs who survive their cancer have long-term health problems. These may be caused by damage from the cancer itself and from the side effects of cancer treatment.4

In a 2020 study, researchers found that AYA cancer survivors were about 50 percent more likely to develop certain health conditions than those who had not previously had cancer. Health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol were common among the AYAs in the study.4

There was an increased risk of other health conditions in AYA cancer survivors as well. These included stroke, heart conditions, and bone conditions such as osteoporosis. While these conditions occur more rarely than those listed above, they can be more common with some AYA cancers.4

Certain AYA cancer treatments seemed to increase the risk of specific health problems later in life. Survivors of AYA cancer who had received radiation therapy to their head were more likely to develop hearing loss later in life than those who had not. Survivors of AYA breast cancer who had received the cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) were 3 times more likely to develop specific heart conditions than those who had not.4

Research is helping to improve treatment side effects and long-term health problems linked to AYA cancers.4

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