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Cancer cases on the rise – but deaths are down

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by Cancer Research UK | News

20 December 2002

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The number of cases of cancer in the UK continues to rise, according to new figures released by Cancer Research UK and compiled by the UK Association of Cancer Registries.

Latest figures show that there were 268,000 cases diagnosed in 1999, 5,000 more than in the previous year and 12,000 more than five years previously. Breast cancer showed the biggest increase in number of cases – with 5,300 extra cases over five years – but there were also big jumps in prostate and bowel cancer.

Much of the increase is likely to be a result of people living longer, but experts are also worried that prevention messages are not getting across.

However, better diagnosis and treatment mean that deaths from cancer are coming down, despite the record number of cases. Figures for the year 2000 show that cancer mortality has fallen every year since 1983.

Numbers of cases of breast cancer have been increasing year-on-year, with 40,900 new cases in 1999 – a 15 per cent rise over five years.

Women are living longer and so have a greater chance of developing cancer, while the screening programme may be picking up extra cases. The fact that women are having fewer children, having them later and breastfeeding less could also be contributing to the increased numbers.

Yet deaths from the disease have fallen by nine per cent in the last five years, reflecting improvements in treatment and the success of the screening programme at diagnosing cancers earlier.

Bowel cancer shows a similar pattern. Numbers of cases have increased by seven per cent in five years, to 35,600, but deaths have decreased by nine per cent, to 16,300. Interestingly, the numbers of cases of the disease are increasing faster in men than in women (by 11 per cent, over five years, compared with three per cent).

Along with the ageing population, lifestyle factors, such as unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, could both be contributing to the increasing numbers of cases of bowel cancer.

Prostate cancer is now the most common cancer in men, overtaking lung cancer, although scientists believe this mainly reflects the increasing use of the PSA blood test, which may detect cases of the disease earlier than previously, including some which might otherwise never have been diagnosed.

The most spectacular treatment success story comes from testicular cancer. Deaths from the disease have been falling for over two decades, and have fallen by 15 per cent in five years, despite a dramatic and unexplained rise in numbers of new cases. In 2000 there were only 81 deaths in the UK from the testicular cancer, yet numbers of cases have increased from 1,600 to just over 2,000 – a rise of 24 per cent.

Professor David Forman, Chairman of the UK Association of Cancer Registries, says: “The increase in the number of people being diagnosed with cancer is mainly a result of our ageing population – more people are living to an age when they can develop the disease. Some cancers, such as melanoma of the skin, are increasing in incidence while others, such as lung cancer in men, are decreasing.

“Having the ability to monitor these trends is absolutely vital and this is provided by the national network of cancer registries. The UK is fortunate in having one of the largest such monitoring systems in the world.”

Professor Robert Souhami, Cancer Research UK’s Director of Clinical Research, says: “The chance of surviving cancer is now much better than it was a decade ago, which is why deaths from the disease have been going down despite the worrying increase in number of cases.

“What these figures highlight above all else is the importance of prevention, which Cancer Research UK has already made one of its top priorities.

“Our risk of cancer goes up as we get older, so as the population ages the disease is likely to become more common. But over half of cancers are potentially preventable, especially if people do not smoke and also eat healthily. It’s essential that we begin to get this message across, in order to reverse the trends we are seeing.”