Cancer is what some Gen Zers might call “cheugy.” And, unfortunately, more adolescents and young adults are being diagnosed with cancer. Additionally, the American Cancer Society released a report saying that rates of colon cancer are on the rise amongst young adults – citing that about 18,000 cases of colon cancer were diagnosed in 2020 in people under the age of 50 (which is when recommended screening begins).
As Gen Z continues to spend more than half of their waking hours on screen and gaining most information from social media, they are still left with unanswered questions and misinformation about their health.
As a millennial cancer doctor, I’m here to bridge this misinformation gap and provide long-awaited answers to some of the questions posed by Gen Z. No cap.
First, the Gen Z population should know that cancer amongst people in their generation is exceedingly rare. Based on data from all cancer diagnoses in 2021, only 4.6% of new cancers were diagnosed amongst those aged 15-39 – and about 85% survived more than 5 years after their cancer diagnosis.
The most common cancers for Gen Z’ers in 2021 included thyroid cancer (16%), breast (15%), and melanoma (8%). Extremely rare cancers that were not common enough to have their own grouping made up a majority (53%) of the new cancer diagnoses. The take away from these subtypes: If you feel a new lump or bump, prolonged constipation, abnormal bleeding, or an enlarging skin lesion – it’s time to see your doctor.
But what about some common Gen Z activities? Do those things cause cancer?
First up: Smoking marijuana.
With recreational marijuana legal in 19 states, and medicinal marijuana legal in 38 states; can marijuana cause cancer? Marijuana actually is a treatment to help with some of the nausea that can be caused by cancer therapies, but, smoking marijuana can carry many of the same harmful cancer-causing chemicals found in the smoke when smoking cigarettes.
Again, there is not enough long-term data on other routes of THC administration like edibles or vaping – but these are likely better than smoking since any form of smoke inhalation (THC or nicotine) can cause lung injury and lead to cancer. W for edibles.
A study in 2015 found an association between a specific type of testicular cancer common in young adults and smoking marijuana, but these are old studies that analyzed data performed from the 90s so it’s high-key not the most trusted data out there.
What about tattoos?
Published case reports have speculated an increased risk of skin cancer after getting a tattoo, but large clinical trials have not found this to be true. Tattoos can cause other sorts of skin problems – cancer is unlikely.
The largest risk that tattoos can carry regarding cancer is the possibility of covering up a concerning skin lesion. Never get a tattoo over a mole. When watching a skin lesion for cancer, remember your ABC’s: A is for Asymmetry – Is the mole even if you drew a line through it? B – Border: Are the edges uneven, crusty, or notched? C – Color: healthy moles are uniform in color and don’t have darker areas within them. D – Diameter: The larger the lesion, the more concerning (usually start watching around 1/4th inch). Finally, E – Evolution Has the mole changed over time?
In fact, tattoos have become commonplace in cancer care. When patients require radiation therapy for their cancer, they will often have permanent tattoos placed to help with their treatment planning. Breast cancer patients can also get a 3D nipple tattoo after they undergo surgical removal of their breast with reconstruction. Overall, tattoos are not only not sus, but are actually on fleek.
And diet coke?
Finally, if you’re unsure whether diet coke is cheugy or not, know that the artificial sweetener, aspartame, has also been associated with increased cancer risk. To be sure, this data is observational and further clinical trials are needed to fully assess if it’s the artificial sweetener causing the increased risk versus other factors; but it might be time to welcome in cancel-culture and ditch the artificial sweeteners.
For the Gen Z generation, cancer can be extra and the more valid information Gen Z’ers have to protect themselves, the better we can all fight this. While getting quick blasts of information from Tik-Tok can be useful, it’s important to consult with a doctor about the risks. Periodt.
TLDR: It’s time to clear up common myths about cancer risks and Gen Z lifestyle choices. For instance, there is not enough information on marijuana regarding cancer risks, but edibles and vaping are safer than smoking. Also, tattoos don’t increase the risk of cancer – but artificial sweeteners can. Regardless of age, if new or concerning cancer symptoms do arise, see your doctor.
Kevin Charles King, MD, is a radiation oncology resident at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He is a Fellow with The OpEd Project.