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Young People's Cancers

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"You've got cancer." Most women in their 20s and 30s can't even imagine hearing those chilling words. But the scary truth is that youth doesn't always shield you from disease. Here, how to recognize two types of cancer more often found in young people (those under age 40) and the smart steps to take to get the best treatment available.


What it is: A disease characterized by abnormal white-blood-cell production in blood-forming tissues.

How common: Nearly 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with leukemia each year, according to the NCI. Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), which accounts for nearly 4,000 cases a year, is the most common type found in young adults and children.

Red flags: Symptoms -- which can include fever, fatigue, drenching night sweats, bleeding, numerous bruises and weight loss -- can mimic a number of ailments. "It's when some of the symptoms persist for weeks to months and don't go away that they may be worrisome," says Wyndham Wilson, M.D., chief of the lymphoma section at the NCI.

Risk reduction: There's no way to reduce your risk, but seeking prompt treatment increases your chances of survival.

Treatment options: Wilson strongly suggests going to a nationally recognized center and seeing a specialist for treatment if a blood test and bone- or bone-marrow biopsy has confirmed that you have leukemia. (To find either, go to the American Cancer Society's Web site at, or log onto the American Medical Association's Physician Select site at "You want to find a physician who treats this type of cancer day in and day out," he says. "You'll have a better success rate." Traditionally, intense chemotherapy is given for several months to treat ALL, followed by what's called maintenance therapy (lower dosages of chemotherapy) for one to two years.

Survival rate: The overall 5-year survival rate has more than tripled in the past 40 years, from 14 percent to 46 percent, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, thanks to improved treatment. For ALL, the 5-year survival rate is more than 60 percent.


What it is: A rare type of lymphoma, a cancer characterized by abnormal cells in the lymphatic system

How common: Hodgkin's comprises less than 1 percent of all U.S. new cancer cases, according to the NCI, but most people who develop Hodgkin's lymphoma are 15-34 or over 55.

Red flags: Can have the same symptoms as leukemia, as well as itchy skin and painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, armpit or groin. Risk reduction: Again, prompt medical attention can improve your odds for survival.

Treatment options: An X-ray, CAT scan and/or MRI as well as a lymph-node biopsy may be required for a diagnosis. Hodgkin's lymphoma is often treated with chemotherapy for four to six months, sometimes with radiation as well.

Survival rate: The 10-year survival rate is more than 70 percent, says Wilson.



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