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South Asian cancer rates rise

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by Cancer Research UK | News

1 July 2003

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A worrying rise in cancer rates among South Asian1 people in the UK is revealed in a paper published in the British Journal of Cancer2.

Results of the study, which was carried out in Leicester, show a jump in the number of cases of cancer in South Asians over a decade. The men’s rate increased by 28 per cent and the women’s rate climbed by 24 per cent. This compares to an overall drop in the rates in Leicester’s non-South Asians.

This increase in cancer risk is set to continue, as it is the younger generation of South Asians experiencing the most marked rise in number of cancer cases.

Researchers at Leicester University, Leicester Royal Infirmary and the Trent Cancer Registry carried out the study of cancer in Leicester’s South Asian population. They looked at data from the 1990s, comparing the number of cancer cases from first half of the decade to the second.

Historically the UK’s South Asian population has had fewer cases of cancer than the general population. This study shows that South Asian rates are quickly catching up to those seen in the rest of the UK.

The research also showed a clear age difference. Older South Asians had much lower rates of cancer than the general population – rates in South Asian males aged 50-74 are 45 per cent lower than non-South Asians of the same age. However rates in younger South Asians were similar to non-South Asians of the same age.

Dr Lucy Smith of the research team says: “Generally rates of cancer are lower for South Asians. Our research shows however that this may not be true for younger South Asians as that cancer risk is beginning to resemble that of the general population. This increase in cancer risk may be due to a change in lifestyle.”

This lifestyle change is most likely due to younger South Asians growing up with, and adopting, western lifestyles – for example less fresh vegetables and more high fat processed foods.

The increase in levels of lung and prostate cancer in men and breast and colorectal cancer in women are striking. These have traditionally been much lower than the UK national average.

However the study also shows that rates of head and neck cancer have fallen in the younger South Asian male population. There has traditionally been a high incidence of head and neck cancers among South Asians. This has been linked with the practice of chewing tobacco – a habit less popular among younger South Asians in the UK.

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Cancer Information for Cancer Research UK, owners of the British Journal of Cancer, says: “All communities need to have suitable access to cancer services. As cancer emerges as an important health issue for South Asians it is important that they have access to information about cancer, including methods of prevention through lifestyle and diet, and how to spot symptoms early.”



  1. South Asian defined as Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi
  2. British Journal of Cancer88 (13)