Alarm over mystery cancer ‘epidemic’ striking under-50s like Kate Middleton as scientists scramble to find cause of startling increase

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Scientists are scrambling to find the cause of a mystery cancer ‘epidemic’ which is striking under-50s.

Kate Middleton’s shock diagnosis last week has shone a light on the startling trend, with top doctors claiming it is a worldwide problem.

Despite years of research, researchers are baffled as to what is behind the problem. 

Increased awareness thanks to the likes of Dame Deborah James, who died from bowel cancer aged 40 in 2022, and improved diagnosis methods are thought to have played a role.

But, in the wake of the Princess of Wales’ news, one surgeon claimed an yet-to-be discovered factor could be to blame. 

Professor Andrew Beggs, a consultant colorectal surgeon and a senior clinical fellow at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘There might be an unknown environmental factor that we haven’t discovered, despite extensive research.’ 

He added: ‘Young onset cancer is by no means rare.

‘I run a clinic for early-onset cancer in adults and we’re seeing more and more people in their 40s with cancer.’

He added other factors that could also be contributing to the rise are better cancer detection methods, awareness of symptoms and better screening of genetic conditions that increase cancer risk, like the BRCA gene like Angelina Jolie has. 

Maia Kennedy, 38, of Hackney, London, today told of her own cancer journey, which shared similarities with the 42-year-old Princess of Wales’.

Ms Kennedy began suffering from nausea in December 2023, which her GP initially put down to acid reflux.

‘Honey you look like a Minion’ – how I was diagnosed with a cancer on the rise in younger women

The first sign Becki Buggs had pancreatic cancer was an odd comment from her husband as she got out of the shower.

‘Becki, you look like a Minion,’ she recalls him saying.

The experienced nurse looked in the mirror and knew immediately she jaundice.

Jaundice, which turns the skin and eyes a yellow tinge, is an indicator that something is seriously wrong in the internal processes of the body and a key sign of pancreatic cancer. 

The then 43-year-old mother of two had been feeling unwell, on Christmas Day 2021, three days before her husband’s comment, but initially thought this was probably a Covid infection.

Rushing herself to hospital for tests, she recalled how as the results came in, she strongly suspected it wasn’t going to positive news. 

‘Everything was adding up to the fact that it was not going to be a good diagnosis. It didn’t make it any easier,’ she recalled. 

Just three days later she was given the devastating news that her fears were founded, she had pancreatic cancer.   

Becki is one of the small but growing number of women diagnosed with the disease. 

Data show cases in her demographic, women aged 25 to 49 have increased by 34 per cent, compared to the 90s nearly double the rate of the general population.

For younger women, those 25-and-under, have exploded by 208 per cent over the same period. 

But Becki is one of the lucky ones, her cancer was caught in the early stages meaning she was eligible for surgery.

She had a pancreaticoduodenectomy, also known as a Whipple procedure, a gruelling procedure that sees cancerous tissue cut away and surgeons then rearranging the patient’s digestive system. 

Becki had ironically prepared pancreatic patients for this procedure multiple times and described her own experience as the ‘hardest’ ordeal of her life. 

‘They were the hardest 11 days of my life. I was away from my children, Jacob and Georgie and they couldn’t come and visit me because of Covid,’ she said.

‘It is a horrible operation. There’s no two ways about it. It’s totally re-plumbing your whole digestive system, so it is gruelling but for me, it wasn’t that bad because I knew what to expect.’

Becki, like cancer experts, urged people experiencing any of the potential, and subtle signs of pancreatic cancer to seek advice from their GP.

‘I’m worried for other pancreatic cancer patients,’ she said.

‘It scares me that there are people out there that will think, oh, I just feel a bit off but it’s fine, I won’t get a GP appointment, I’ll just ride it out. 

‘Then they become so ill and jaundiced that they get admitted to A&E and by then it’s too late. 

‘If you are concerned about a symptom, get in touch with your GP.’

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The website developer was eventually called for an emergency test, where doctors found a tumour in her bowel during her colonoscopy.

At the time it was thought to be pre-cancerous.

Ms Kennedy, who lives with her partner of 10 years, was then told it was stage one bowel cancer after undergoing routine surgery to remove part of her bowel earlier this year.

The Princess of Wales herself underwent planned abdominal surgery in January. Doctors originally didn’t think her condition was cancerous but tests later revealed the disease. 

She started a course of preventative chemotherapy in Late February and has not named the type of cancer she had. 

Another cancer survivor, Becki Buggs was 43 when she received the news she had pancreatic cancer. 

She told MailOnline earlier this year that she was motivated to get tests after her husband commented she looked like ‘a Minion’, a skin change later revealed to be jaundice.

Men are also at risk. 

Ricky Smith, of the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, learned last month that the cause of his agonizing headaches wasn’t stress but a type of brain cancer. 

The father-of-three has since been given 15 months to live. His inoperable tumour was only spotted by an eye test. 

Celebrities have also been caught in the rising pattern of increasing cancer cases in the young. 

Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman was killed by colon cancer before the age of 50, medically known as ‘early-onset’.

Others are currently being treated for the disease, such as actress Oliva Munn, who at 43 recently revealed she had breast cancer.

Sofia Vergara of Modern Family, Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor, and singer Kylie Minogue were all also diagnosed with cancer before turning 50. 

UK data shows that while cancer rates have increased across all age groups, cases have increased far faster among the young.

According to Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the incidence rate among younger Brits (aged between 25-49) is now 162.4 cases per 100,000 people each year.

This is 22 per cent higher than the figure in the 90s. 

And the increase cannot be dismissed as just being due to better cancer detection methods, experts argue. 

For comparison, rates among the over 75s, who account for about half of all cancer cases in the UK, only increased by 9 per cent in the same period. 

Cases among the under 50s are still, statistically speaking, rare, only accounting for one in 10 cases of the disease in Britain.

However, the rate of increase, and the fact that so far scientists have been unable to pin the cause, is worrying experts. 

Oncologist Dr Shivan Sivakumar, from the University of Birmingham, described the situation as an ‘epidemic’.

He said: ‘There is an epidemic currently of young people (under 50) getting cancer. 

‘It is unknown the cause of this, but we are seeing more patients getting abdominal cancers.’ 

Professor Karol Sikora, a world-renowned oncologist with over 40 years’ experience, told MailOnline earlier this year that experts had ‘no idea’ what was causing a ‘frightening’ surge in cases of pancreatic cancer, especially among young women.

Speaking today, he added that experts can’t explain the reason behind the rise of cancer in young people.  

‘The truth is we just don’t know. The causes of cancer are locked into a population many years before they become apparent,’ he said, 

Professor Sikora also said that the increase has have been observed for years and there are a number of reasons experts suspected were to blame.   

‘Its’ got nothing to do with Covid or vaccines – it started happening long before,’ he said.

‘I believe its probably due to lifestyle changes – obesity, fatty diet, sedentary behaviour, sitting at desks all day and of course better diagnostics.’

There also appears to be a gender divide in cancer rates among the young.

CRUK data shows women in their early 40s, like Kate, are twice as likely (2.1 times), to get cancer than a man of the same age.

A similar gender divide is also present among cancer diagnoses in their 30s and late 40s.

The gap does balance out slightly as Brits age, with men having a higher chance of being diagnosed from the age of 60 onwards. 

Britain isn’t an outlier when it comes to an increase in cancer rates among young people, with similar rates spotted across the globe. 

It wasn't until doctors ran some tests that she was called in for an emergency colonoscopy in January during which they found a tumour

In December 2023, Ms Kennedy (pictured in hospital) experienced nausea and a change in bowel habits, both of which were dismissed by her GP as acid reflux. It wasn’t until doctors ran some tests that she was called in for an emergency colonoscopy in January during which they found a tumour

Its not only celebrities which get early onset cancer. British nurse Becki Buggs was just 43 when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She told MailOnline earlier this year she was motivated to get tests after her husband commented she looked like 'a Minion', a skin change later revealed to be jaundice

Its not only celebrities which get early onset cancer. British nurse Becki Buggs was just 43 when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She told MailOnline earlier this year she was motivated to get tests after her husband commented she looked like ‘a Minion’, a skin change later revealed to be jaundice

Ricky Smith, 39, a site manager from Isle of Sheppey, Kent, pictured with his partner make-up artist Katrina Binfield, 41

Ricky Smith, 39, a site manager from Isle of Sheppey, Kent, pictured with his partner make-up artist Katrina Binfield, 41

A study published in the British Medical Journal last year found cases of early onset of cancer increased overall globally by 79 per cent between 1990 and 2019. 

The experts also predicted cases of cancer in the young are set to rise further, by an additional 31 per cent by 2030.  

World Health Organization data shows Australia had the highest number of early-onset cancer diagnoses in the world, with a rate of 135 per 100,000 people in 2022.. 

New Zealand came second, with 119 cases in per 100,000 people among the young.

In comparison the UK and the US were far lower but still high in the global rankings, coming 28th and 6th, respectively. 

Diets being high in red meat and low in fruit as well as high alcohol consumption and tobacco use were pinned as the main risk factors.

Experts have previously linked the rise of such processed diets in the Western world from the 50s onwards to a rise in dietary related cancers, like bowel cancer, among younger people. 

More than 375,000 cases of cancer are detected every year in Britain, the equivalent of 1,000 each day, according to CRUK.

About 100 of these are among people under the age of 50.

Cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and bowel make-up the overwhelming majority of all new cancer diagnoses, accounting for around half of the total. 

The Princess of Wales’ cancer was discovered only after she underwent major abdominal surgery at The London Clinic in January. 

Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman died in 2020 at the age of 43 from colon cancer

The Wanted star Tom Parker died in March 2022 following a year-and-a-half long battle with stage four glioblastoma brain cancer, aged just 33

Both actor Chadwick Boseman and singer Tom Parker were killed by early onset cancer, defined medically as a case of the disease striking someone under the age of 50

Dame Deborah James, nicknamed the 'bowel babe' raised more than £11.3mn for Cancer Research and is credited for increasing awareness of the disease, which killed her in 2022 aged 40

Dame Deborah James, nicknamed the ‘bowel babe’ raised more than £11.3mn for Cancer Research and is credited for increasing awareness of the disease, which killed her in 2022 aged 40

Dexter star Michael C Hall is an early onset cancer survivor, having Hodgkin's lymphoma at 38, he is now 53

Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara is also an early onset cancer survivor, having had thyroid cancer when she was just 28

Dexter star Michael C Hall was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 38 (pictured here in 2020) whereas Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara was previously diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the just 28

In 2008 Star Wars star Ewan McGregor revealed  he had a cancerous mole removed from just below his right eye, he was 37 at the time

Australian popstar Kylie Minogue had her own cancer battle, being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, she was 36 at the time

Actor Ewan McGregor and singer Kylie Minogue both starred in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge but they also share a similar medical history both having had cancer before the age of 50

Kensington Palace has said it will not be sharing details of what kind of cancer she has, or what stage of cancer it is and has asked people not to speculate.

In a statement, His Majesty said he is ‘so proud of Catherine for her courage in speaking as she did’ and remains in the ‘closest contact with his beloved daughter-in-law’. 

Kate is currently undergoing preventative chemotherapy following the discovery of her cancer, having started the treatment in February. 

Preventative chemotherapy, medically called adjuvant chemotherapy, uses powerful drugs that target fast growing cells like cancer. 

It is designed to eliminate any small traces of cancer that remain following surgery in a bid to reduce the risk of the disease returning. 

Kate’s cancer battle in her own words: The Princess of Wales’ emotional video statement in full 

I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you, personally, for all the wonderful messages of support and for your understanding whilst I have been recovering from surgery.

It has been an incredibly tough couple of months for our entire family, but I’ve had a fantastic medical team who have taken great care of me, for which I am so grateful.

In January, I underwent major abdominal surgery in London and at the time, it was thought that my condition was non-cancerous. The surgery was successful. However, tests after the operation found cancer had been present. My medical team therefore advised that I should undergo a course of preventative chemotherapy and I am now in the early stages of that treatment.

This of course came as a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family.

As you can imagine, this has taken time. It has taken me time to recover from major surgery in order to start my treatment. But, most importantly, it has taken us time to explain everything to

George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be ok.

As I have said to them; I am well and getting stronger every day by focusing on the things that will help me heal; in my mind, body and spirits.

Having William by my side is a great source of comfort and reassurance too. As is the love, support and kindness that has been shown by so many of you. It means so much to us both.

We hope that you will understand that, as a family, we now need some time, space and privacy while I complete my treatment. My work has always brought me a deep sense of joy and I look forward to being back when I am able, but for now I must focus on making a full recovery.

At this time, I am also thinking of all those whose lives have been affected by cancer. For everyone facing this disease, in whatever form, please do not lose faith or hope. You are not alone.

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