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There is a very straightforward answer to the question of whether teenagers can get cancer: Yes, but it's relatively rare. In the United States, where good records are kept, about 5,000 teenagers aged 15 to 19 are diagnosed with cancer every year. About 600 of those teenagers die.

Teen cancers account for less than 1 percent of all cancer diagnoses and less than 1/10 percent of all cancer deaths, although cancer still is the fourth most common cause of death among teenagers in the USA (again, using the USA as an example because that is where records are readily available).

Although nearly all cancers can strike at nearly any age, it's the various forms of leukemia, lymphoma, testicular cancer (germ cell tumors), brain and spinal cord tumors, bone tumors (osteosarcoma and Ewing tumors), muscle tumors (sarcoma), melanoma, ovarian cancer, and thyroid cancer that are the most common cancer types in teens and young adults (under the age of 25). Stomach cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer usually don't appear before the thirties, and they are rare even then.

When "adult" cancers appear in teens, they may be more likely to result in death because doctors aren't as quick to diagnose them. Colon cancer, for example, is usually survivable in older adults, largely because it most commonly diagnosed in a timely fashion. When colon cancer is diagnosed at Stage I, over 95 percent of patients live five years or more (and are effectively "cured"). Typically, a colon cancer tumor takes 10 to 20 years to become malignant, and the average age at diagnosis is 68, so getting a colonoscopy every 10 years after the age of 50 is adequate for ensuring early treatment for most people. When colon cancer is initiated in childhood, however, doctors don't even think of giving children colonoscopies to look for tumors, and the result is that treatment is not started in time.

Cancer in teenagers usually isn't caused by lifestyle. There is no six-year-old, for example, who has smoked herself into lung cancer. Except in cases of radiation exposure, there simply is no way for enough DNA damage to accumulate in the very young to cause cancer. The problem in cancer in the very young is usually a heritable condition, or a mutation of DNA that occurred even before birth. 

That's why the most important way to prevent cancer deaths among teenagers is to pay attention to family history and, where applicable, to get genetic testing. If a parent, grandparent, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or cousin developed cancer as a child or teenager, then it pays to be on the lookout for the same kind of cancer developing at an early age in another family member. Although testing for the BRCA (breast cancer) gene is more often cited in the news, it's really testing for genetics for early colon cancer (Lynch syndrome, originally termed hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer or HNPCC, but also increasing risk of ovarian and cervical cancer in teens and young women) and early melanoma (CDKN2A/p16 testing) that is more relevant to teens. If there is a history of any cancer before the age of 20 in your family, ask your doctor about getting these tests. The only change to your lifestyle may be that you get checked more frequently for early signs of cancer, but earlier diagnosis can lead to earlier treatment that may save your life.

It's important, however, not to guess about whether you have cancer. Don't rely on fears and guesswork. Get tested. Modern medical technology makes advanced warning of cancer a reality in many cases. Relatively simple tests can relieve your fears, or set you on the path toward treatment.

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