More Young Adults Are Getting Cancer, but These Women’s Stories Go Beyond the Stats

Courtesy of Bri Mahon and Jennifer Lava

Like all the “hot girls” on TikTok, Bri Mahon thought she had irritable bowel syndrome. Since her early 20s, she had been battling a variety of gut inconsistencies: bloating, constipation, blood in her stool, thinning stool. But it wasn’t until she was 31 that she realized her IBS could be something more serious.

In September 2022, Mahon gave birth to her twin boys at only 23 weeks, landing them in the NICU. On top of her persistent stomach issues – plus brain fog and fatigue she associated with pregnancy – she was traumatized and stressed from their stay. Six months after her boys came home, she began noticing dark red blood in her stool. A colonoscopy soon after confirmed she had stage four colon cancer.

“As shocking as it was to hear, it was also, honestly, like, thank God that they found something,” she says. “I would say to my husband every day, ‘Something weird is going on.’ I just knew something was off for a very long time, and things started escalating and escalating.”

Mahon later learned from her doctor that based on the size and stage of her tumor, it had probably been growing for about 10 years – right around the time she first experienced IBS symptoms.

Mahon with her twin boys, Banks and Brooks. Image Source: Courtesy of Bri Mahon

Mahon’s story is one of many growing cases of early-onset cancer, or cancers diagnosed in patients ages 18 to 49. Earlier this year, the American Cancer Society’s 2024 report showed an uptick in new cases involving younger people – in fact, younger adults were the only age group with an increase in cancer cases between 1995 and 2020, though survival rates for this subset haven’t changed significantly during this time. TikTok is full of 20- and 30-somethings sharing their shocking cancer diagnoses, and urging fellow young people to look out for specific symptoms and get checked. Recent stories about celebrities in their early 40s, like Kate Middleton and Olivia Munn, have also shed light on the rise in cancer among a younger group.

Why is this happening? The short answer is, we don’t know for sure. “It’s multifactorial,” says Nancy Borstelmann, PhD, MPH, LCSW, co-director of Yale Cancer Center’s Early Onset Cancer Program. As she explains, there are links to cancer we have evidence of, like obesity, alcohol and tobacco use, and genetic factors. But there are also others that are still being researched, such as environmental exposures in chemicals and water, or behavioral and lifestyle exposures like antibiotic use, breastfeeding patterns, and IVF.

In particular, colorectal and breast cancer have shown the greatest increase in young adults, says Veda Giri, MD, an oncologist and co-director of Yale Cancer Center’s Early Onset Cancer Program. But, she adds, there’s been a rise in cancers across the board among young folks, including pancreatic, thyroid, skin, and reproductive cancers.

But research and three-minute TikTok videos only tell a piece of the story. The lived experiences of women like Mahon, who get diagnosed with cancer in their 20s and 30s, show there’s more to the data. They’re reframing their idea of what their families might look like. They’re finding community on social media. They’re learning to advocate for their health at every turn. And, most importantly, they’re beautifully optimistic about the future.

“Cancer Can Already Feel Very Isolating and Lonely”

When Jennifer Lava learned she had stage four colon cancer at age 34, she actually laughed. “In no way did that make sense to me. It is so unheard of. I was just like, ‘Of course if I was to get cancer, it would be a cancer that is [associated with] 50-plus men.’ My brain couldn’t compute it,” she says.

Though colon cancer is still most frequently diagnosed in people over 65, it’s seen “the biggest increase” in the 20-29 age group, explains Robin Mendelsohn, MD, a gastroenterologist and co-director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Center for Young Onset Colorectal and Gastrointestinal Cancers.

Lava, pictured ahead of radiation therapy. Image Source: Courtesy of Jennifer Lava

Unlike Mahon, Lava, now 39, didn’t experience any of the typical colon cancer symptoms. Occasionally, she’d have sharp stomach pains, but nothing that alarmed her enough to seek medical attention. In April 2019, after battling what she thought was a stomach bug for five days, she finally went to urgent care, and then the emergency room, where the doctor discovered an eight-inch tumor in her right ovary.

She went into surgery two months later, where she lost both of her ovaries, fallopian tubes, 21 lymph nodes, and a piece of her colon. Then came eight rounds of chemo. Her cancer came back in her abdominal cavity in April 2021, and she did an additional seven rounds of chemo and another surgery. In October 2023, cancer returned in her colon. In total, Lava has endured 26 rounds of chemo radiation and chemo pills. Now, she’s waiting to hear if she needs another surgery and will have her uterus removed, or learn to live with her colon cancer, treating it as a chronic disease.

Patients with early-onset cancer diagnoses are impacted differently, both mentally and physically, than those with average-onset, which is defined as cancer in ages 50 and up. “These younger patients have different needs than average onset patients,” Dr. Mendelsohn says. With early-onset patients, there are considerations when it comes to sexual health, nutrition, psychiatry, fertility, more. For women in particular, fertility can be a huge differentiating factor.

Because of the size of her tumor at the time she was diagnosed, Lava didn’t have the option to freeze her eggs. But, given that she always wanted kids, she figured she’d do IVF after she finished chemo. Her doctors were confident her other ovary would be clear of cancer. But after several surgeries, she lost both her ovaries and learned she would not be a candidate for IVF in the future.

“I feel very singular.”

“It just feels like a death,” she says. “I haven’t fully processed my ovaries being gone. I haven’t met anyone who has gone through this. Cancer can already feel very isolating and lonely. And my case of it being colon cancer, and losing my fertility now, I feel very singular.”

It’s hard to plan for the future because, as Lava puts it, “cancer affects every aspect of it.” “I want to meet somebody and I want to have a family,” she says. “Before the cancer, there were all kinds of pressure and fears, too, and they’re just amplified now.”

When Amanda Quick was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at 29, she also had to make “really quick choices about fertility.” Her doctors recommended she start treatment immediately, and forgo freezing her eggs. The 31-year-old is now in medically-induced menopause, and she won’t be able to conceive biologically.

Quick with her family. Image Source: Courtesy of Amanda Quick

“When I first got diagnosed with cancer, so many friends and family were like, ‘Let me introduce you to my mom, my aunt,’ people who’ve been diagnosed, and I was so grateful for those introductions,” she says. “But I think a lot of those women were between 50 and 70, and I was in such a different place in my life.”

When Quick thought about her own future, she was concerned about her career, dating, and fertility. “It was really hard for me to be like, ‘How am I going to get back in the dating world? How would I explain this to someone?’ Honestly, I’m still kind of working through that,” she says. “With fertility, it’s also changing my mindset around what a family looks like. I can still adopt; I can have a surrogate, but it was about being open to those different possibilities.”

“I Needed to Find People . . . Who Were Going Through This”

Because cancer can often feel so lonely, patients and survivors emphasize the importance of community. That’s why Taylor Bragg, who was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 26, started sharing her experience on TikTok.

“When I first got diagnosed, I was afraid to look at anything online because I felt like everything about cancer was either so sensationalized, very medical, or kind of depressing,” she says. “I wanted to give people a platform where they could talk in the comments or they could talk to me about what they were going through, and focus less on the diagnosis and more on getting through it every day.”

Bragg wearing a cold cap during chemotherapy. Image Source: Courtesy of Taylor Bragg

Bragg says “the power of TikTok” led her to meet so many other young women with the same diagnosis, who in turn helped her understand her own diagnosis better.

Quick, on the other hand, turned to support via organizations dedicated to raising breast cancer awareness, particularly among younger women, like 5 Under 40 and The Pink Agenda. “I could talk to my mom or my dad, my sister, my close friends about this, but I needed to find people who were on the same drugs, who were going through this, who’d also been diagnosed in their 20s,” she says.

Metastatic breast cancer may be a “lifetime diagnosis,’ but on the outside, Quick doesn’t look sick. “If you saw me walking down the street, you’d have no idea,” she says. While she’s currently on chemo drugs, she appears healthy. She still has her hair, she goes to work, and she travels.

“I’ve always said I wanted to change the narrative around young people with cancer and that it is possible to still live a full life with breast cancer, though everyone’s experience is different,” she says. “When I was going through this, I still didn’t see that many people that looked like me and people that I could go to that were in a similar situation.” Ultimately, that’s why she’s dedicated to spreading awareness and educating other young women about how to prevent breast cancer.

“Go In and Get It Checked Out”

Given the data, cancer patients and doctors alike stress the importance of speaking up about your own health and seeking answers. When Mahon’s colonoscopy confirmed she had stage three colon cancer, she was told if she had waited “any longer,” her cancer could have been terminal.

Even if it’s really hard to hear about a diagnosis, it is just one step forward in the right direction of healing.

“If something’s off, as scary as it is, schedule that appointment, get a second opinion, or even just talk about what’s going on,” Mahon says. “I have never regretted getting on medication or going to get tested and getting answers. Even if it’s really hard to hear about a diagnosis, it is just one step forward in the right direction of healing.”

Bragg also emphasizes this: “If something feels consistently off about your body, go in and get it checked out.” In her case of lymphoma, she started feeling dizzy and sweating at night – symptoms she could have written off as nothing to worry about, as a healthy 26-year-old.

And when she did experience more significant symptoms, like problems breathing and unexplained swelling in her face, she felt like she was “bounced around” by doctors and not taken seriously. “If you feel like you’re being brushed off because you’re young, keep pursuing that and don’t stop arguing,” she says. “If you need to ask for a new doctor, ask for a new doctor, because at the end of the day, they don’t know what you’re going through; they can only go off of the diagnosis on paper.”

Symptoms vary for different types of cancer, but a good rule of thumb is to bring “any new or persistent symptom” you have to a doctor, according to Dr. Giri. But more importantly, trust yourself, and feel empowered to voice any concerns or questions you might have. And not just to your doctor – talk about your health with your friends and family members. It’s especially important to have a handle on your family’s medical history to see if you need to seek earlier cancer screenings.

Lava wants all young folks to get comfortable talking about their bodies and bodily functions. “All of a sudden, I started becoming the person people talk to about poops and I’m like, ‘Great, I’m happy to do that with you,'” she says. “I don’t have any information or research to help support me because there is no research on women under 40 with colon cancer. I am the research. So I know it’s scary for people to put themselves out there, but I think that the more they do, the less scary it becomes.”

“Never a Doubt in My Mind That I Wouldn’t Beat It”

While receiving a cancer diagnosis and navigating subsequent treatments might make it difficult to maintain any sort of optimism, these women prove otherwise.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t beat it,” Mahon says. After watching her twin boys go from the NICU to being healthy, she thought, “If they fought so hard to be here, I am just going to do the same.”

After six, seven rounds of chemotherapy, Mahon’s tumor decreased in size, and was able to be removed via surgery. There’s no longer any cancer detected in her lymph nodes, but she’s on her 10th round of chemo, with two more to go to decrease chances of recurrence. Eventually, she’ll have to get an ileostomy reversal, a surgery to reattach her bowel after a temporary ileostomy. “I have had scary moments, of course, where I’m like, ‘What if this comes back? What if it doesn’t work? What if surgery goes bad? What if it grows back? What if?'” she says. “But I just really don’t let myself live there.”

My cancer definitely tore me down to my lowest point. But then from there, it really built me up to the most fulfilled I’ve ever felt in my life.

In fact, her cancer diagnosis has allowed her to introduce more fun, joy, connection, and groundedness. “I want to live my life and I want to love my life,” she says, adding that “soft, gentle living” is her priority now. “I’ve always been someone that loves nature and loves being outside, but now I’m fully committed to farm life. We have chickens. I want to grow my own food. I want to be barefoot. I want to be a hippie farm girl.” Plus, she adds, “I joke that I’ll be potty training at the same time as my twins. We’ll do it all together.”

When Quick graduated college, she envisioned what her life would look like at 30, 40 years old. “I was such a planner,” she says. “But when you get this diagnosis, so many things are uncertain. Of course, I’m still working towards some of those longer term goals, but how do I now really enjoy this time just in the present?” Her diagnosis has shifted her focus to “living a great life with purpose and celebrating all the people” in her life.

Bragg says she’s experienced the same. “My cancer definitely tore me down to my lowest point,” she says. “But then from there, it really built me up to the most fulfilled I’ve ever felt in my life.” Prior to her diagnosis, she hadn’t really thought about what “making a difference in life” looked like. “It made me realize the things that really matter, like the people that care about you, and what you do with your life and how you impact other people. That’s why I started posting on social media in the first place.”

Laughter is an important part of all that positivity. That’s why Lava named her tumor Carl. “People forget how important laughter and happiness is during the hardest parts,” she says. “Even on the worst days I have, there’s something to laugh or smile about. And if you’re not doing that, then something is wrong. Because I’m still alive.”

Yerin Kim is the features editor at POPSUGAR, where she helps shape the vision for special features and packages across the network. A graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, she has over five years of experience in the pop culture and women’s lifestyle spaces. She’s passionate about spreading cultural sensitivity through the lenses of lifestyle, entertainment, and style.

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