11 September 2023

A new crisis: cancer in young people

The COVID pandemic has received so much attention, it is amazing these latest and deeply disturbing cancer statistics are not all over the press. 

Between 1990 and 2009 and averaged all across the world, early-onset cancer has increased by an incredible 79.1%. The number of early-onset cancer deaths has increased by 27.7%. 

79% and 27%!!! 

If that is not as significant as a pandemic, it is hard to imagine what is???

So this week, what are the facts, and what are behind them? What the …. is going on amongst our younger people, but first 

   Thought for the day

      Regardless of who we are,

      The main purpose of our life, 

      You could call it the heart of being human, 

       Is to be happy. 

       All of us share the same wish, the same right 

       To seek happiness and avoid suffering.

       If you look closely, 

       You can see there are two kinds of happiness.

       One is based on physical comfort or pleasure of the senses

       The other is based on a deeper mental contentment

                            H.H. the Dalai Lama

Early onset cancer is defined as cancer in adults under 50 years of age – or sometimes as cancers in those 18 to 25. So what this recent major study published in the British Medical Journal of Oncology is saying, is the amount of cancer in the world’s younger people is going up at an unprecedented rate.

Now you might imagine the obvious question would be: “What is causing this?” Yet most of the academic commentary I have read so far is emphasising the need to increase early detection! 

The exclamation mark is an attempt to highlight how odd this seems. Surely the need is to find out what is causing the problem and to correct it, rather than aim to diagnose and treat (given diagnosis and treatment is of course what is needed for people currently afflicted).

To be fair, the actual article did state:

Dietary risk factors (diet high in red meat, low in fruits, high in sodium and low in milk, etc), alcohol consumption and tobacco use are the main risk factors underlying early-onset cancers.

Encouraging a healthy lifestyle could reduce early-onset cancer disease burden.

However, for me there are 2 important observations:

1. Cancer is largely a lifestyle issue and the rates of cancer are going up way too rapidly in younger people. The impact of this as the years go on will be disastrous both for the people involved (as both patients, family, friends and colleagues), and for the medical system attempting to help them (a system and a workforce that seems to be buckling under ever increasing pressures).

2. Lifestyle is the cornerstone for the prevention of cancer and all the other chronic, degenerative diseases that create so much havoc, but are demonstrably preventable. 

So then two questions: 

1. Why are people around the globe drawn so strongly to an unhealthy lifestyle? 

2. And given how much so many of us know about the impact of lifestyle, why is it so many of us are find it easier to follow an unhealthy lifestyle as compared to a heathy lifestyle? 

Consider this… when it comes to exercising, do you find it easier to do some regularly, or to put it off?

When it comes to meditating, do you find it easier to do some regularly, or to put it off?

When it comes to most lifestyle factors, do you find it easier to do some regularly, or to put them off?

Now this is not about shaming or blaming, but we do need to observe there is a real crisis. How do we help ourselves and our communities to be drawn to a healthy lifestyle and sustain that?

So over to you:

It would be wonderful to hear from those of you who do maintain a healthy lifestyle. Whether that has been for a long time and you find it easy, or have gone through personal struggles to turn things around, what works for you and those close to you? 

Given up smoking, cut back on alcohol, change your dietary patterns??? How did you do it? What was easy or difficult? How have those around you reacted?

How are you going maintaining a healthy lifestyle?

Please add your experiences into the Comment section below:

Comments need to be cleared, so they may take a while to appear on the blog, but maybe your own experiences or insights can help someone else… 



Zhao J, Xu L, Sun J, et al   Global trends in incidence, death, burden and risk factors of early-onset cancer from 1990 to 2019. BMJ Oncology 2023;2:e000049. doi: 10.1136/bmjonc-2023-000049

 Lifestyle Medicine Cancer Retreats

Good friends and ex-colleagues Liz Stillwell and Sandy Clinton will be presenting their next 5 day Residential Cancer Retreat later in October this year - 2023

Designed specifically for men and women with a cancer diagnosis this is a research-based integrative medicine lifestyle approach supporting conventional medicine cancer treatments and best cancer outcomes – based on the philosophies and teachings of the Gawler Cancer Foundation, and echoed worldwide in various centres in Canada, US and the UK. 

Liz and Sandy now offer 2 retreats per year at the Yarra Valley Living Centre, (previously The Gawler Cancer Foundation) warmly hosted by Brahma Kumaris.

Next Retreat: 27th – 31st October 2023

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Teaching sessions include Meditation, anti-cancer Nutrition, effective use of the Mind, Imagery, Spirituality and living with Purpose, Healthy Emotions, Exercise and healthy Support.

The daily Programme includes Daily Meditations & Qi gong, walking (and rest time) with fresh delicious whole food plant-based meals – all within a beautiful peaceful natural bushland setting.

Enquiries: please email us - cancerbalanceandwellbeing@gmail.com 

Facilitators: Liz Stilwell & Dr Peter Johnston (see overleaf) 

Retreat Co-ordinator: Sandy Clinton 

Harpist: Michael Johnson

Plus: Recovery stories When diagnosed with cancer, hearing real stories of real people making real recoveries inspires our belief and builds our faith in what is truly possible – and helps hold us to our intentions to maintain a healthy lifestyle focus. This retreat is for people who choose to take an active role in their health and wellbeing

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Liz Stilwell: Retreat Facilitator

Liz has an extensive 35 years in Health – Occupational Therapy in Psychiatry, then counselling, clinical hypnosis and N.L.P in private practice. She trained with The Gawler Cancer Foundation in 2004 leading 12 week Lifestyle change programmes for cancer, Mindfulness meditation courses, and counselled many people with cancer at The Gawler Cancer Foundation City branch - specialising in processes for trauma recovery, anxiety, depression and insomnia - her approach influenced by her meditation practice.

Liz later facilitated monthly Cancer Retreats and co-facilitated MS retreats. And for 5 years, Liz assisted Drs Ian and Ruth Gawler in leading annual Meditation Retreats in the Coromandel Peninsula, NZ. Liz advocates strongly for a life created and directed by the heart believing our physical health is strengthened by emotional wellbeing. She has a deep lifelong interest in spirituality and works as a spiritual carer in palliative care.

Peter Johnston:

Peter is an accredited practising dietitian with a Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics and a PhD in Human Genetics. Peter is also a fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine and has completed health coaching training with Well Start Health. He has been exclusively plant-based since 1991 after learning of the health, environmental and ethical benefits. Peter runs a private practice: Perfect Human Food Consulting, offering individual consultations, public speaking, webinars, workplace health programs, and residential reboot programs. Peter is a member of the advisory council for health charity Doctors For Nutrition. He is also a partner with Melbourne Lifestyle Medicine which offers a range of programs including residential retreats. He has expertise in the prevention, treatment and reversal of chronic diseases through the use of whole food plant-based diets and the holistic approach of lifestyle medicine. He enjoys empowering people across all life stages to attain optimal health. Peter has attended and spoken at numerous national and international conferences.

Sandy Clinton:

Sandy joined The Gawler Cancer Foundation in 2006 and has deepened her interest and appreciation for the mind-body connection since then. She has assisted hundreds of people in the Client Services role with TGCF which gave her a unique insight into the challenges people face when diagnosed with a chronic illness and wanting to improve and maintain their wellbeing. This led her to train as an Ageless Grace ® Educator, and she rejoices in delivering this brain health fitness program as often as possible. Sandy takes true joy in supporting the journey of discovery participants experience during retreats.

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Michael Johnson:

A concert performer and composer, Michael has worked for many years in the field of therapeutic support through music. His tranquil harp music has been a significant part of the retreats at the Gawler Foundation for over thirty years. He is a Music & Mindfulness co- ordinator at Delmont psychiatric Hospital and Road Trauma Support services Victoria and leads seminars, workshops and Inservice sessions for businesses for staff professional development. For over 20 years, Michael has been resident composer at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, organising the Harp in the Gardens concerts and Harp Meditations.



  1. I've always wondered what the long term impacts on human health plastics will be - for a long time they didn't realise how bad smoking was for you - could plastics and so so many environmental toxins be contributing factors - it hasn't been so long that plastics have been around to current extent - they were barely in my childhood and now micro plastics are in our blood, the muscles of sharks...........🤷

    1. It is clear they are a much bigger concern now we know more about them than when they were first released as a convenience for modern life...

  2. "Ultra-processed people" by Chris van Tulleken in my opinion a must read book.
    Thanks Ian for another thought provoking article

  3. Ultra processed. Two words that encapsulate much of the problem. Best way to eat? Start with raw ingredients! :)

  4. I now eat a whole-food, plant-based diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, after reading the works of Dr. John McDougall, a pioneer in lifestyle medicine. I'm 70, enjoy good health with no medications and am able to hike many miles here in the mountains of Colorado. I've never felt better! I'm also a long-time daily meditator and also practice Yoga Nidra daily.

  5. A book that helped me understand why ultra-processed foods are so attractive is "The Pleasure Trap," by Doug Lisle. It explains the concept of calorie density and our biological attraction to calorie-dense and processed foods.

  6. I gave up smoking in the 80's while in the world of fashion. 35 cigarettes a day on average to nothing. My incentive was to keep the money for my daily consumption in a separate wallet and top it up everyday exchanging coins for notes as the amount grew. Every Saturday was a trip to the luxurious retailers to buy myself some big brands make up or accessories. The deal was not to buy food with that money but to spoil myself. Did it for 6 months. Have not smoked since.
    I had a cancer scare in 2015 with an ovarian cancer diagnosis at stage 3. Except for 1 professional giving me a glimpse of hope, my only option was to jump of the conveyor belt of surgery and chemotherapy. Did not get answers regarding the consequences and life inconvenience of such surgery so went on my own quest and did cleanses, fasting, meditation, acupuncture, remedial massage, naturopathy, trampoline, walks, visualisation, was raw vegan for 5 months, T total as well as no theine teas or coffee. Immediate family was supportive but other people saw me as a freak. I'm still alive and well. No support from the medical body as I had no conventional treatments so I check my CA125 levels once a year or so and keep myself healthy as much as life allows me to.
    I hope this can help somebody else as I would have loved to find some help and hope when I started my journey.

    1. Thanks for sharing this inspiring story - of overcome addiction and surviving cancer using your own capacities. Well done and may you continue well :)

  7. As a teen I substance abused by chroming and became addicted to benzo’s at 14. Tried to end my life, was nearly successful and my parents in desperation gave me a puppy, was an ah ha moment. I blocked the childhood sexual abuse for 30 years and kind of got on with it, the other thing I did at 14 after severe abuse was to start a veggie garden and I was hooked, I loved the outdoors, training my little Sheltie and life got better. It progressed to marriage/3 sons, who I raised on a acre block with 24 fruit trees, large veggie garden and herb beds, spaces to reflect, meditation hut, tree swing and hammock, home cooked food & yoga lifestyle with daily meditation. I have a large trauma history so I have mental health issues, however they are managed well, I have some niggly physical issues but nothing major. Mum/Dad/sister all diabetic, I am not, I rarely touch alcohol so feel at 53 I am doing well, I aim for 20,000 steps a day, cycle many places and swim outdoor laps every day in the pool season and also kayak.

  8. Great story! Wonderfully inspiring to hear recovery stories like this... Best wishes :)

  9. Thankyou Ian, this is very validating (and concerning) of my story with early onset cancer. I was diagnosed in 2009 with leiomyosarcoma (very rare) at age 30 and it came completely out of the blue for me, a real shock. I barely got a cold before that however I suspect it was there for some time before I found the tumour, so I could well have been diagnosed earlier into my twenties. After 17 yrs in recovery now, of growing, introspection and lifestyle medicine (thanks to your incredible support over these years as well!) I now know more about how early lifestyle influences have both been a contributor and have helped me - firstly, my mother was a strong advocate for a healthy lifestyle and she raised me eating very good nutritious food (a limit of sugar and fat / red meat, in fact I remember learning about you through her at the time!), as well, we were always active kids outside, in nature or playing sports etc. Secondly, I had a lot of chronic stress, tension and negativity around me, and as a sensitive child I absorbed it readily. So diet and exercise wasn't ever that hard to commit to in cancer recovery, the biggest learning and healing for me has been the lifestyle area of stress reduction through meditation, relaxation and body based therapies. So I think for me what's interesting about this research is it really affirms both the importance of the early positive influences of how my mum raised me, and where in my life the negative influences have created the most challenge to overcome. I appreciate learning about any possible causes of my cancer, at any time, because it was very isolating and scary to not be provided with any answers when I was diagnosed, and knowledge does help to heal, even in hindsight.

    1. I also have Leiomyosarcoma (stage 4). I am convinced that stress was a trigger for developing this disease. I was diagnosed in December 2020 and have had 3 surgeries (including ribs removed) and radiotherapy. You give me hope that I can live with this for many years to come.

  10. Thanks for shining light of the complex interactions that are behind all significant illnesses, for pointing out how a multi-factorial response is required, and how well you have done by using your own resources. Well done and more power to you... :)