The shifting patterns of cancer diagnosis over recent years are revealed by new figures released by Cancer Research UK and compiled by the UK Association of Cancer Registries.
Latest figures show that there were over 270,000 cases diagnosed in the UK in 2000, 3,000 more than in the previous year and 14,800 more than five years previously.
But Scotland, which has higher rates of cancer than the rest of the UK, has bucked the trend with a fall in cases, thanks to success in curbing the country’s high smoking rates.
Across the UK, there were big increases in malignant melanoma, uterine cancer and prostate cancer, partly offset by falls in the numbers of stomach and cervical cancers.
As people live longer, more and more are developing cancer, with numbers in the UK increasing steadily since the early 1970s, to the current all-time high.
Certain cancers are increasing particularly sharply. The number of cases of malignant melanoma leapt to 7,000 in 2000 – an increase of 16 per cent in a year and 24 per cent over five years – providing a stark warning of the dangers of over-exposure to the sun.
Cancer of the uterus also increased sharply to 5,600 cases, up eight per cent in a year and 22 per cent over five years. Cancer Research UK believes rising rates of obesity may be contributing to the increase, while hormone treatments like tamoxifen may also slightly increase the risk of uterine cancer.
Cases of breast cancer increased by 12 per cent over the five years to 40,700, although between 1999 and 2000 there was actually a fall of 600 cases.
Prostate cancer increased by 25 per cent cases over five years to 27,200, but here the figures are influenced by increased use of the PSA blood test, which often picks up cancers that will not be life-threatening. A 17 per cent rise in the number of cases of non Hodgkin’s lymphoma is also partly likely to be the result of more sensitive diagnostic techniques.
Professor David Forman, Chairman of the UK Association of Cancer Registries, says: “Keeping track of cancer trends is vital for research on the causes of cancer and to help focus prevention strategies and treatment resources.
“Cancer mainly affects older people and as our population ages, we are inevitably seeing more cases. But it’s important to pick out cancers where rates are increasing faster than we’d expect from changes in demographics, so we can gain clues about causes.”
While some cancers are increasing, elsewhere there are success stories for cancer prevention strategies. While concern remains over smoking rates in women, cases of many smoking related cancers are continuing to fall in men, whose smoking rates have been declining since the late 1970s. Success in cutting smoking is particularly noticeable in Scotland, which has for many years had the highest cancer rates in the UK, but which has now cut men’s lung cancers by 15 per cent in five years.
Sharp falls in numbers of stomach and cervical cancers across the UK also reflect the success of cancer prevention. Stomach cancer has been decreasing for the last 30 years, as improved hygiene has reduced infection with Helicobacter pylori – one of the main causes of the disease – and the use of fridges has provided a more balanced diet throughout the year.
Screening has cut the incidence of cervical cancer, by picking up and treating precancerous conditions. There were 2,991 cases of the disease in 2000, a fall of 13 per cent in five years.
Professor Robert Souhami, Cancer Research UK’s Director of Clinical and External Affairs, says: “These statistics paint a detailed picture of the ups and downs of cancer incidence in the UK.
“The figures highlight the impact that cancer prevention strategies can make, with falls in smoking-related cancers, particularly in men, in cervical cancer, because of screening, and stomach cancer, thanks to improvements in food hygiene and preservation. It’s particularly encouraging that Scotland’s very high cancer rates are finally starting to come down.
“On the other hand, certain cancers are increasing more quickly than we’d expect simply by the ageing of the population. It’s worrying to see that melanoma rates are continuing to rise unabated and we really need to hammer home the sun protection message.
“It will also be important to understand the reasons for the increase in cancer of the uterus. It may be related to rising rates of obesity, which are pushing up the rates of a number of cancers in both women and men.”
Note to editors:
The release of the new statistics coincides with a House of Lords balloted debate on cancer registration, in which peers will discuss ways of improving access to data on cancer.