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Breast cancer cases in UK top 40,000 for first time

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by Cancer Research UK | News

2 June 2003

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More than 40,000 British women are now annually diagnosed with breast cancer – an all-time high – according to new figures released today by Cancer Research UK. Experts believe the trend is set to continue for some time to come.

However, more women are being successfully treated than ever before with three out of four surviving for five years or more.

Death rates are down significantly – around 13,000 women died of breast cancer in 2001, a decrease of 21 per cent over the last decade. This decline can be attributed to improvements in treatments and the success of the  screening programme.

Professor Jack Cuzick, Head of Cancer Research UK’s Epidemiology, Mathematics & Statistics Department at the Wolfson Institute for Preventive Medicine in London, explains: “Tamoxifen has been in use for 20 years and the screening programme has been up and running for the last 15. These two advances alone account for significant improvements in survival.

“The reasons behind the increase in incidence are more complex and we’re just beginning to understand the risk factors. The levels of the female hormone oestrogen seem to be important but these levels depend on a number of other variables.

“We know that obesity in post-menopausal women is a risk factor and that it can raise the levels of oestrogen. We also know that levels of obesity have been rising steadily in the past decade and this may be contributing to the upward trend.

“But many of the risk factors are difficult or impossible to control – genes play a role, and both late menopause and the early onset of periods are known to increase the risk.

“We need to do more to understand the risk factors and develop preventative strategies.”

Cancer Research UK Clinical Director, Professor Robert Souhami, says: “The increase in the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer is a matter of concern.

“However, research is beginning to uncover the factors which affect risk, and knowing who is at risk and why is the first step towards prevention.

“In the meantime, early detection remains very important in preventing deaths from breast cancer and it is essential that women are aware of this and attend for screening when they are invited.”