UAE cancer rate five times higher in young adults than in UK and US

Poor diet and lack of exercise among factors behind worrying trend, study says

Portrait of Dr. Humaid Al Shamsi at his clinic at
Burjeel Medical City, Abu Dhabi on May 19th, 2021. Victor Besa / The National.
Reporter: Nick Webster for News
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Almost half of all cancer cases in the UAE involved people aged under 50, a study found.

Research compiled in the Emirates revealed 45.4 of all cancer diagnoses in 2017 – the most recent figures available – were in people aged between 20 and 49, up from 42.3 per cent two years earlier.

The percentage of all cancer cases is significantly higher than in the same age groups in the UK, US, Canada, China and India.

Figures from the UAE National Cancer Registry were compared to 2020 global data on the disease.

This is a critical issue that is underreported

The study’s author, cancer specialist Dr Humaid Al Shamsi, an associate professor at the University of Sharjah's College of Medicine, said the research should trigger a warning.

While the youthful demographic of the Emirates means a large proportion of its population is within that age group, Dr Al Shamsi said there were other factors at play.

“This is a critical issue that is currently underreported,” he said.

“The UAE is a young nation and most of the population are expatriate workers, with a significant number under 50.


“This may be part of the problem. But when we looked at the numbers to exclude international workers, the figures were still significantly higher.

“This does not explain the entire issue, so we must look towards environmental and hereditary factors as to why cancer rates are so high.”

Research showed women in the UAE were more likely to get cancer, with 51.3 per cent from the total number of new malignant cancer cases in 2017, compared with 38.3 per cent in men.

Environmental factors such as poor lifestyle habits, inactivity and diet are contributing, but more screening and awareness of symptoms could also be playing its part, leading to more diagnoses.

“Breast cancer is 99 per cent found in females, and is the most common cancer, so it will inevitably result in more women being diagnosed,” said Dr Al Shamsi, who manages the cancer clinic at Burjeel Medical City in Abu Dhabi.

“But we are still seeing both men and women reporting higher rates of cancer than elsewhere.”

In a recent clinical review of his patients, Dr Al Shamsi found of the 12 most recent cancer cases diagnosed, nine patients were in their 30s and 40s.

“I wasn’t completely shocked but it was clear something was wrong,” he said.

“Elsewhere, most people with cancer are in their 60s and 70s, but here it is a completely different landscape.

"We know exposure to environmental factors plays a big role.

"Every day 11 people are diagnosed with cancer in the UAE, with two to three people dying, which is shocking.

“Increasing rates of cancer is the reality and we have to be ready for it."

Obesity linked to rise in cancer rate

An increase in obesity is also linked to more cancer, according to Dr Prasanta Kumar Dash, an oncologist at Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai.

“Given colorectal cancer’s strong link to obesity, the increasing obesity rates among adolescents and young adults also resulted in increased cancer rates,” he said.

“There is evidence that tumours in young adults are different on a molecular level from those found in either children or older adults.

PJ2N9C Young attractive man eating burger and french fries at cafe.
Bad eating habits increase the risk of Covid-19 infection and its complications, experts say. Alamy

“While survival rates are higher among adolescents and young adults with cancer, they have a higher risk of developing long-term effects such as infertility, cardiovascular disease, sexual dysfunction and cancer later in life.”

More patients get screened as cancer awareness continues to grow

Dr Mohamed Khalafallah, chief gynaecologist at Bareen International Hospital in MBZ City, said wider access to screening could be a contributing factor.

“An awareness among healthcare physicians about early detection of cancer will push most patients to undergo routine screening, even without symptoms,” he said.

“The research paper concentrated on a very important issue in the medical field, as the incidence of cancer is increasing at a younger age in the UAE.

“As most of the population is well educated, people are searching for screening for cancer and precancerous lesions.

“The availability of medical equipment in the form of a Pap smear, HPV screening or ultrasound to spot cancer in the pelvis and breast will also increase the chance of discovery of premalignant and malignant lesions.”

How does UAE compare to global data?

In the US, the percentage of all cancers belonging to the 20-49 group in 2020 was only 8.75 per cent.

This number dropped to 8.33 per cent in the UK and 8 per cent in Canada, with 16.15 per cent of cancer cases in China and 26.75 per cent in India in the 20-49 category.

Only Saudi Arabia had a rate comparable to the UAE, at 39.49 per cent.

In women, the most common cancer in the UAE is in the breast, followed by the thyroid and then colorectal cancer and leukaemia.

Men are more likely to suffer colorectal cancer, followed by leukaemia, prostate and skin cancer.

Cancer is increasing worldwide by 1 to 1.25 per cent every year. Within a decade there are likely to be between 10 and 12 per cent more people with the disease than today if this trend continues.

According to the 2020 World Health Organisation report on cancer, global cases are forecast to increase from 18.1 million in 2018 to 29.4 million by 2040.

Cancer has been the forgotten illness during the global pandemic, with routine screenings and hospital visits postponed around the world, leading to delayed detection and reduced survival outcomes