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  • Health & Medicine

Men’s cancer risk is climbing: what can we do about it?

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

19 December 2012

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If current trends continue, half of UK men born in 2027 will develop

If current trends continue, half of UK men born in 2027 will develop cancer

A boy born in 2027 in the UK will have a one in two chance of developing cancer over the course of his lifetime, according to new figures we released today.

In other words, 50 in every 100 UK men in the future are likely to hear the words “you have cancer” at some point in their lifetime. However you say it, that’s clearly not a positive headline.

But crucially, this increasing lifetime risk of cancer is balanced by another powerful force – that of increasing survival rates. Against a backdrop of increasing cancer risk over the past 40 years, survival rates have doubled in the UK.

This is thanks to our greatest weapon against cancer – research, be it new treatments or new ways to prevent people getting cancer in the first place.

Read on for more in-depth analysis of today’s report, and for the visually-minded, this short animation has the key facts:

What is lifetime risk?

Today’s projections don’t mean one in every two men will have cancer by 2027. Instead the lifetime risk of cancer estimates the chance that a newborn child has of developing cancer at some point during their life. The projected lifetime risk is based on predicted population and all cause mortality data, along with incidence and death rates, both in the past and projected into the future. (You can read more about the methods used to predict lifetime risk on our website.)

What’s driving this increase?

Lifetime risk accounts for a person’s overall risk over their whole life. It doesn’t say anything about when a person might develop cancer. But our risk of cancer doesn’t stand still during our lifetime – just as our baby-soft skin starts to accumulate wrinkles as we get older, our risk of developing cancer builds up as we age.

That’s because, as well as wrinkles, we accrue more and more genetic damage over our lives, which is the underlying cause of cancer. And as time passes, cancer-linked genetic factors we may have inherited from our parents have more chance of kick-starting cancer.

Age is one of the biggest risk factors for cancer. In other words, the older we get, the more likely we are to develop cancer. That’s one reason why – thankfully – childhood cancer is rare, accounting for less than 1 per cent of all cancers.

And because of advances in general medicine and improving living conditions, people are living longer on average. The result is more cancer.

As the following chart shows, the projection of one in two men in the future developing cancer is disproportionally down to our ageing population. In fact, based on current trends, a boy born in 2027 will be at least 75 before his risk of cancer starts to exceed that of a man in 2010. But many more people will be living into their 80s, 90s and beyond, so the burden of cancer will increase.

Mens cancer risk by age

So in many ways we’re a victim of our own medical successes – the conditions that used to kill great numbers of people, such as infections like polio, are no longer as big a threat. But chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease are fast replacing the diseases of old. We’re living longer, but are not necessarily healthier.

Which cancers are increasing?

The men’s cancers set to increase the most over the next 15 years include prostate and bowel cancer and malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

  • The lifetime risk for prostate cancer is predicted to increase from around 132 in 1,000 men now to 162 in 1,000 men born in 2027. A large reason for the increase in prostate cancer is because of the use of a test called prostate specific antigen (PSA), which is leading to more men being diagnosed with the disease. But we don’t yet have a reliable way to work out which men have life-threatening disease, and which don’t. In other words, working out who will die from their prostate cancer, as opposed to with their disease is still beyond us.
  • The lifetime risk for bowel cancer is predicted to increase from around 72 in 1,000 men to 84 in 1,000 men by 2027. Beyond our ageing population, the increase in lifetime risk of bowel cancer is down to lifestyle factors such as an increase in red meat consumption, obesity, low-fibre diets, alcohol and tobacco.
  • The lifetime risk for malignant melanoma is predicted to increase from around 18 in 1,000 men to 27 in 1,000 men by 2027. Malignant melanoma is the most deadly skin cancer, and around 10,200 men in the UK in 2027 are predicted to be diagnosed with the disease.

But these are areas we’re actively researching. You can read highlights of our current research on skin, prostate and bowel cancer on our website.

What can men do to reduce their risk?

Yes, age is the biggest risk factor for cancer, but this doesn’t mean we should be complacent or fatalistic. The predicted rise in the number of cancer cases isn’t inevitable, there are things we can do to reduce the risk – because more than four in ten cancers could be prevented by lifestyle changes.

If more men start making changes to their lifestyles, such as not smoking, keeping a healthy weight, cutting back on alcohol, eating a healthy, balanced diet, being physically active and staying safe in the sun, then some of these cancers would never develop.

Research is the answer

Everyone has their part to play in the fight against cancer, and we’re at the frontline of the battle. Because, as our new TV ad says, cancer’s biggest enemy is research.

History proves that research is a formidable enemy – it’s thanks to advances in the prevention, detection and treatment of cancer that more people are surviving their disease than ever before. And our recent figures show that the rates of people dying from cancer are predicted to fall by 17 per cent in the UK by 2030.

But today’s lifetime risk projections in men – and equally sobering statistics in women – clearly show there is more to do.

With the continued help of the public we’ll continue to support lifesaving research; continue to lobby government to make the right choices when it comes to cancer, such as supporting the plain packaging of cigarettes; and continue to encourage people to make the lifestyle choices that research shows can help cut their cancer risk.

Research has already beaten diseases like smallpox. And one day, research will beat cancer.