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Britain’s 100 year war against cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

3 July 2002

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Britain has the world’s biggest decreases in premature deaths from lung cancer and breast cancer, scientists from Cancer Research UK report.

Two of the UK’s leading experts on cancer trends, Professors Sir Richard Doll and Sir Richard Peto, unveil new figures at a special press briefing, to mark the 100th anniversary of charitable research into cancer.

In the first half of the century, the advent of smoking and the near-eradication of infectious disease left cancer and heart disease as Britain’s biggest killers.

But since the 1970s, Britain’s men have had the world’s sharpest fall in premature deaths from lung cancer, as more and more smokers quit the habit. And in the past decade, British women have had the world’s biggest decrease in deaths from breast cancer, thanks to better diagnosis and treatment.

Profs Doll and Peto are presenting the results on Friday at the International Cancer Congress in Oslo, where they will receive the King Olav V prize for outstanding research.

The researchers split the UK’s cancer deaths into two parts – those attributed to smoking and those not. Twenty-five years ago, tobacco caused more than half the cancer deaths before age 70 in men and an increasing proportion in women.

They found that since then, tobacco-attributed deaths at these ages have fallen by half in men, while in women they are half what they would have been had those smoking in the 1970s continued to do so.

Prof Doll, who in 1950 discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer, says: “A century ago hardly anyone smoked cigarettes and relatively few survived long enough to develop cancer. The advent of antibiotics and sanitation on the one hand, and cigarettes on the other, tipped the balance and saw the start of a massive epidemic of smoking-related deaths that reached a peak in the 1970s.

“But since then we’ve been enormously successful at persuading people to quit. As a result, the death rate from lung cancer is tumbling more quickly than anywhere else in the world.”

There have also been improvements in treatments, particularly for breast cancer. Deaths from this disease among the under 70s have decreased more sharply in Britain than anywhere in the world – by 30 per cent in the last 10 years.

Prof Peto comments: “During the 1990s, premature deaths from cancer fell by one fifth. The decrease in UK cancer mortality over this decade was greater than at any time in the previous century. This was partly, as is the case with breast cancer, because of better diagnosis and treatments.

“But a large part of the decrease was as a result of smoking cessation. About half of those who keep on smoking will eventually by killed by their habit.”

Dr Richard Sullivan, Cancer Research UK’s Head of Clinical Programmes, and an expert in Medical History, comments: “The next big challenge for the medical profession is to learn to control cancer.

“A hundred years of research into the disease has brought improvements in survival for many cancers, but an ageing population and the lethal effects of tobacco mean the disease is still a major problem.

“The tremendous success in this country at persuading people to give up smoking is an example of how good quality research and carefully directed lifestyle advice can have a real effect on the way people live their lives.”