Are cancer rates rising?

Cancer is so prevalent in life now that it is easy to think that the rates are skyrocketing. However, the numbers don’t back this up. In actual fact, we are slowly but surely advancing our response to the disease, and recently published data underlines this progress.

The publication was the annual report of the American Cancer Society. In that article, they compile all the recent data to see what trends there are in cancer rates and deaths.

The report delivers some good news.

Although cancer kills more people in the US than anything except heart disease, the incidence of the disease (the percent of the population diagnosed) is stable or declining, and survival is increasing. This is a steady trend we have seen over the last decade, and it looks like it will continue into the future.

To be clear, because the population is increasing we are seeing more cancers, so the total number is rising, but the incidence (which is relative to the population) is not changing. For example, if there are 200 cases of cancer in a population of 100,000 (0.2%), that is the same incidence as 20,000 cases in a population of 10 million (0.2%). The number of cases is different (200 compared to 20,000), but the incidence is the same.

Also remember that the older you are, the more likely you are to be diagnosed with cancer. And that people are now surviving longer with the disease than ever before. So, when this increased survival is combined with the rising and older population, it is perfectly understandable that we come into contact with more and more people who have had the disease, and thus think that the rate is increasing.

What the data actually shows us is that this is not the case. In women, the overall incidence of cancer is neither increasing nor decreasing. While there are drops in colon and lung cancer, there are increases in breast and skin cancers that offset these, so overall, there is no change.

In men we have also seen a drop in colon and lung cancers, but also a large decrease in prostate cancer, which means that overall, male incidence of cancer has dropped by around 2%. The decrease in prostate cancer is largely down to changes in how we screen for the disease, so is probably not a true decrease (before we changed the screening we were detecting lots of cancers that would never have progressed. We no longer count them in the numbers). In reality, the male situation is probably like the female situation, and there has been little change in the numbers.

When we look at the survival from cancer, the picture is more optimistic. Since 1991, the overall death rate from the disease has decreased by 1.5% per year, which means that in the last 36 years we have seen a decrease of over 26% in cancer deaths. That means that the likelihood of you dying from cancer has drastically decreased.

In 1975, 50% of patients were dead after 5 years. By 2012 this had decreased to 34%, and this trend is continuing, with more people surviving for a longer time after being diagnosed with cancer.

There have been several major advances in the last few years, and we are yet to see the real benefit of these, so it looks like this trend for increased survival will continue. It is slow progress, but the numbers certainly give us cause to be optimistic!

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