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  • Health & Medicine

Cancer is the biggest premature killer

by Laura Dibb | Analysis

3 November 2011

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Despite tremendous progress against cancer in recent decades, the disease remains a huge health challenge in the UK. Only last week, our Chief Executive Harpal Kumar warned that the NHS faces a “perfect storm” of rising cancer cases and squeezed finances over the next 20 years.

Today we’ve released further figures that serve as a stark reminder of the scale of the challenge we face. On average most men in the UK will live until their late 70s and women until their early 80s. But our latest report shows that cancer is now responsible for killing 40 per cent of all the men and women who die before their time between the ages of 25 and 74.

The 4 Most Common Causes of Death, Percentages of All Deaths, 25-74, UK, 2007-2009

In other words, 4 in every 10 people in this age group who die before they reach their life expectancy are killed by cancer.

Our chief clinician, Professor Peter Johnson explains more in this video:

There’s good news too

As well as this news, there’s another side to the story – more people are surviving cancer than ever before, and an individual’s chances of dying from the disease are much lower than they were 40 years ago.

This sounds quite confusing – on the one hand, we’re saying that cancer is the biggest cause of premature deaths, but more people are beating the disease.

This can be explained by the fact that, sadly, more people are getting cancer – mainly because we’re all living longer. Generally age is the biggest risk factor for cancer (there’s simply more time for our cells to accumulate genetic damage that leads to cells growing out of control and forming tumours). There’s also plenty of time for lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol and obesity to take their toll too. The reason for people living longer is a combination of great things like the success medicine has had in treating major illnesses such as heart disease or infectious diseases, and even better diets has had an effect.

So whilst the fact that we’re all living longer means more people are getting – and therefore dying from – cancer, as an individual our risk of dying from the disease has fallen.

A closer look at the figures

Cancer is the largest cause of death in the UK. But in our new analysis we were interested in breaking the figures down to see how the burden of cancer falls across the ages.  These diagrams show this analysis:

Most common causes of death in girls and women

(Click to view data) The 4 Most Common Causes of Death in Females, Average Percentages and Numbers of Deaths, by Age, UK, 2007-2009. As the percentage figures have been rounded they may not add up to 100%.

Most common causes of death in boys and men

(Click to view data) The 4 Most Common Causes of Death in Males, Average Percentages and Numbers of Deaths, by Age, UK, 2007-2009. As the percentage figures have been rounded they may not add up to 100%.

We found that cancer is the biggest killer across almost all of the age groups we looked at, with one exception – teenagers and young adults (aged 15 to 24). For this age group, road traffic accidents kill more people, and for young men only, suicides and other accidents were also more common causes of death than cancer.

The findings give us a stark reminder that cancer is a disease that’s diagnosed in people of all ages and shows us there’s still so much more to be done, especially in raising awareness of symptoms and improving early diagnosis of the disease. Spotting cancer early can make a big difference to the chances of dying from the disease, and could save thousands of lives in the UK.

The figures also highlight the importance of taking preventive measures to reduce the risk. For example, lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer in the UK, and nine out of 10 cases are caused by smoking. If every smoker quit their habit, it could prevent many thousands of premature deaths every year.

These statistics are sobering, and illustrate that we must continue to work hard if we are to achieve our vision of beating cancer. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, our work has contributed to the dramatic fall in death rates from cancer over the last forty years.

And as we continue to discover better ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer, we will move ever closer to beating cancer.

Laura Dibb (Press Office) and Matt Wickenden (Statistical Information)