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1 in 2 people in the UK will get cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

4 February 2015

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Scientist looking at petri dish

One in two people will develop cancer at some point in their lives, according to the most accurate forecast to date from Cancer Research UK, and published in the British Journal of Cancer

Cancer is primarily a disease of old age, with more than 60 per cent of all cases diagnosed in people aged over 65. If people live long enough then most will get cancer at some point.

– Professor Peter Sasieni

The new figure highlights the urgent need to bolster public health and NHS cancer services so they can cope with a growing and ageing population and the looming demands for better diagnostics, treatments, and earlier diagnosis. Prevention must also play an important role in the concerted effort required to reduce the impact of the disease in coming decades.

Thanks to research, the UK’s cancer survival has doubled over the last 40 years and around half of patients now survive the disease for more than 10 years. But, as more people benefit from improved healthcare and longer life expectancy, the number of cancer cases is expected to rise. This new research estimating lifetime risk finds that, from now on*, 1 in 2 people will be diagnosed with the disease.

This new estimate replaces the previous figure, calculated using a different method, which predicted that more than 1 in 3 people would develop cancer at some point in their lives.

Age is the biggest risk factor for most cancers, and the increase in lifetime risk is primarily because more people are surviving into old age, when cancer is more common.

Study author Professor Peter Sasieni, based at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Cancer is primarily a disease of old age, with more than 60 per cent of all cases diagnosed in people aged over 65. If people live long enough then most will get cancer at some point. But there’s a lot we can do to make it less likely – like giving up smoking, being more active, drinking less alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight.

“If we want to reduce the risk of developing the disease we must redouble our efforts and take action now to better prevent the disease for future generations.”

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re living longer and that means we’re more likely to develop a range of age-related health issues. We need to plan ahead to make sure the NHS is fit to cope. If the NHS doesn’t act and invest now, we will face a crisis in the future – with outcomes from cancer going backwards.

“As Simon Stevens set out in the NHS Five Year Forward View, we need better planning and innovative design of services. We also need to ensure the health service is adequately funded if we’re to deal effectively with the growing burden of cancer and offer all patients the best chance of long term survival.

“But NHS investment isn’t the only answer. We need a concerted approach and a broader sense of how we can save lives and money by preventing more cancers. Growing older is the biggest risk factor for most cancers – and it’s something we can’t avoid. But more than four in ten cancers diagnosed each year in the UK could be prevented by changes in lifestyle – that’s something we can all aim for personally so that we can stack the odds in our favour.”

Kumar added: “Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen cancer survival in the UK double in the last 40 years. In order to accelerate progress and see more people beating the disease, we have to make sure our NHS cancer services and public health initiatives match our research by being among the best in the world.”

Dr Emma King, Cancer Research UK head and neck surgeon, said: “We’re seeing more patients than ever before and the numbers are increasing year on year. But the resources for treating these people have stayed the same. If we’re going to give them the best possible chance of beating the disease then we’ll need greater investment and support now and in the future.

“Preventing more cancers and diagnosing the disease as early as possible, when treatment is more likely to be effective, could have a significant impact on survival in the UK. We also need the infrastructure to better tailor treatments to patients based on the molecular makeup underpinning their individual cancers.”

Professor Dame Sally C Davies, Chief Medical Officer, said: “We must set these figures in context of the fact that people are living longer because of better healthcare and medical advances. Cancer survival rates have improved to record levels in this country and we are working to raise awareness of cancer symptoms so it can be diagnosed earlier, improving cancer outcomes. Leading a healthy lifestyle is easily the most effective thing you can do to reduce your risk, this means being active, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol, and having a balanced diet.”

Sue Deans, 69, who was diagnosed with melanoma in 2007, said: “I was part of the generation where package holidays became affordable and you could go abroad nearly every year. I don’t think there was much understanding at the time about the impact sunbathing can have on your risk of getting skin cancer.

“I’ve always been quite body aware and that meant my cancer was spotted early. I had successful surgery and have been healthy since – but I’m always vigilant in keeping an eye out for anything unusual or persistent that might need to be checked.

“As a mother of three, and a grandmother of one, I’ve made sure the children picked up safe sun habits from me and are doing their bit to lower their risk in the future.”

For more information read our blogpost on the new research.

Ahmad A.S., Ormiston-Smith N. & Sasieni P.D. (2015). Trends in the lifetime risk of developing cancer in Great Britain: comparison of risk for those born from 1930 to 1960., British Journal of Cancer.