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  • Health & Medicine

Drop in premature cancer deaths in middle age

by Julie Sharp | Analysis

15 May 2012

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We all fear hearing the words: “You have cancer.” But today’s news that premature death rates from the disease in middle-aged people have dropped by 40 per cent in the last 40 years is a cause for celebration.

The fact is that the number of men and women in their 50s – whose lives were once all too often cut tragically short by cancer – have new hope as their chances of beating the disease has hugely improved.

In the early 70s more than 21,000 people in the prime of life died from cancer. Today that figure has dropped below 14,000.

The below graphic summarises the key statistics:

Premature cancer deaths drop

Click to enlarge

Quicker and more accurate diagnosis, better treatment such as improved chemotherapy and radiotherapy and – most importantly – falling smoking rates, are behind this growing trend.

Cancer has been around for centuries. But today – as we can expect to live longer than our grandparents – the number of people who will develop cancer is rising. More than 1 in 3 of us will face that diagnosis at some point in our lives. But survival rates have doubled since the 70s.

It’s now been more than 60 years since the landmark research that showed smoking caused lung cancer. And as the number of habitual smokers has dwindled so the shocking number of lung cancer deaths has begun to drop.

Sadly though, this trend is much slower in women and we’re still seeing rising lung cancer cases, reflecting smoking behaviour over a generation ago.

But although the number of deaths has dropped, too many people still lose their fight against the disease. Spotting cancer earlier will have a big effect on cutting cancer deaths.

On average people in the UK are diagnosed at a later stage than in Europe and late diagnosis cuts the chances of curing the disease. We need to boost awareness of the signs of symptoms of cancer among both the public and GPs because the earlier cancer is diagnosed, the greater the chance of survival.

There is still a lot of work to do, particularly in cancers that are difficult to diagnose and treat, such as ovarian and pancreatic cancers, and where survival rates are far too low.

But hope is on the horizon, and these are exciting times for cancer researchers. Huge progress is being made in unlocking the mysteries behind cancer and, ultimately, finding cures.

  • An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Daily Express