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Cancer now number one cause of death in UK men

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by Cancer Research UK | News

12 May 2003

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Cancer is now the biggest killer of British men, overtaking heart disease1 for the first time, according to new figures released by Cancer Research UK.

Death rates from cancer have actually fallen by 15 per cent in the last decade. But mortality from heart disease dropped by 30 per cent over the same period – primarily due to the impact of lifestyle changes and more recently cholesterol lowering drugs.

Leading Cancer Research UK experts warn the greater complexity of cancer – of which there are 200 different kinds – means a dramatic decline in overall mortality is unlikely.

But while cancer is expected to remain the leading cause of death for the next decade, steady advances in diagnosis and treatment, along with declining rates of smoking and other lifestyle changes, will continue to push down mortality from the disease.

The news comes at the start of Cancer Research UK’s men’s cancer awareness campaign, a month long initiative to raise issues and change attitudes about the cancers that affect men.

Female death rates from cancer in the UK overtook those from heart disease in the late eighties. Now, statistics show the same has happened in men and for the first time cancer is the biggest cause of death in the male population.

Professor Nick Day, Cancer Research UK’s leading epidemiologist, from Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge, says: “At the moment the gap between male deaths from cancer and heart disease is small but the difference will widen over the next ten years as deaths from heart disease continue to drop at a more rapid rate than cancer.”

Latest available figures show that in 2001 there were around 79,800 deaths from cancer and around 79,500 deaths from heart disease in UK men. This compares with 10 years ago, when there were 84,250 male deaths from cancer and 100,600 from heart disease.

Current trends are set to continue and it is estimated that by 2005 deaths from heart disease in UK men will have fallen to 65,000 while there will be 75,000 men dying from cancer.

Cancer Research UK experts say while changes in diet and smoking habits, along with improvements in treatment have caused a sharp drop in heart disease, with a few notable exceptions the progress with cancer will be less dramatic due to the complex nature of the disease.

According to Dr John Toy, Medical Director at Cancer Research UK, cancer is an umbrella term used to describe 200 different diseases: “No one kind of cancer is identical with any other and although there are similar underlying mechanisms, cancers act differently and respond differently to treatment depending on their type. The enormity and complexity of the cancer problem cannot be overemphasised.

“The good news is that we are making advances in diagnosing and treating individual cancers. Death rates are falling for most of the major cancers that affect men.”

For men in the UK, lung, prostate, bowel, oesophageal and stomach cancer are the five biggest causes of cancer death. Death rates for all of these cancers, apart from oesophageal cancer, have been falling over the last 10 years. Experts believe the advances in the diagnosis and treatment of these cancers, along with the continuing decline in smoking rates, will see mortality rates drop even further in the future.

Dr Toy says: “With the introduction of bowel screening in the future and improvements in the way early prostate cancers are managed we fully expect deaths from these diseases to fall. We are investigating better combinations of chemotherapy for oesophageal and stomach cancer, so advances here will hopefully lead to a decline in male mortality.”

But while progress is being made in the treatment of cancer, researchers are concerned that British men are ignoring both the early warning signs for the disease and important prevention messages.

He adds: “Unlike in women the incidence of male bowel cancer has been rising. Men in this country need to know that a large number of bowel cancers may be prevented by changes in diet.

“Male deaths from lung cancer are declining as a direct result of men stopping smoking – but this is more marked in the south of the country and among high-earners. It’s crucial that all men realise that it is never too late to quit. Your life expectancy increases and health benefits start almost immediately whether you stop smoking at 30 or 60 but, ultimately, the benefits are greatest when stopping younger.”

Cancer Research UK’s Sir Paul Nurse says: “That cancer has become the UK’s number one killer in men sounds like bad news but it is important to remember that deaths from cancer are falling – it is just that deaths from heart disease are coming down more rapidly.

“The complex and multiple nature of cancer means it is less straightforward to treat than heart disease but as we identify new drug targets and develop new treatments, mortality will decline.

“It’s vital that men are made aware of the early warning signs for cancer and realise the chances of being cured are far better if the disease is treated as soon as it becomes apparent. Us men are renowned for our ‘head in the sand’ mentality when it comes to our health – and if we are going to reduce deaths from cancer then we need to change that.”


  1. Includes ischaemic heart disease but not stroke