Thursday July 14 2011
The rise may be due to an ageing population, and improved disease detection, treatment and survival
“Rising cancer rates mean four in 10 people in the UK get the disease at some point in their lives,” reports BBC News.
The news story is based on a press release by the health charity Macmillan Cancer Support. The press release reports on a new analysis of cancer statistics in the UK over the past decade. The figure of ‘4 in 10’ comes from this data.
Researchers also examined the ‘journeys’ of people who were diagnosed with one of three types of cancer to see how their health changed over the next 10 years. The full results are not available and have only been presented at a conference, but the press release has some details on survival from colorectal cancer, which can be found below.
The headlines that 4 in 10 people will now get cancer at some point in their lives may sound worrying. However, it does not mean that the number is increasing because more people are being exposed to cancer risks. Some of these changes may be due to lifestyle factors linked to cancer, such as obesity, alcohol and smoking, but many will be due to an ageing population, and improved disease detection, treatment and survival.
There are ways to cut your risk of cancer, including eating well, exercising and avoiding smoking and heavy alcohol consumption. Read our Live Well article for more information on ways to cut your risk.
Where did the story come from?
The news reports are based on a press release by the charity, Macmillan Cancer Support, which reported the findings from one of its studies. The study’s findings were presented at a conference on cancer in June called “Liberating Information, Improving Outcomes”, which was hosted by the National Cancer Intelligence Network. This appraisal is partly based on an abstract (a short summary of the study and its findings) from the conference. The research was carried out by researchers from the Monitor Group, Europe, the University of Nottingham, the University of Leeds and Macmillan Cancer Support. The abstract does not include information on funding sources.
The current study used data from multiple sources, including cancer registries that collect data on all reported cancer cases, and a previous study that was published in 2008 in the British Journal of Cancer. The press release also refers to the statistics that emerged from that data on the prevalence of cancer in the UK (i.e. the 4-in-10 cancer figure). It is these statistics that the media has tended to focus on.
This work has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
This research was reported accurately by BBC News.
What kind of research was this?
This study involved an analysis of clinical data, which sought to map the different experiences of patients with colorectal cancer, multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s disease. The overall aim of the study was to describe the cancer patients’ journeys from the time of their cancer diagnosis to eight years post-diagnosis, based on data of their hospital activities. The researchers plan to use this information to assess the likely path that a patient with one of these cancers would take based on certain factors before and at the time of their diagnosis.
Further information released by Macmillan Cancer Support was derived from cancer prevalence figures previously published by the British Journal of Cancer, and various government registries, including the Office for National Statistics.
Such data analysis is useful for describing trends in disease, but does not provide sufficient information to conclusively define the underlying causes of these trends.
What did the research involve?
The researchers used clinical data from cancer registries and Hospital Episode Statistics to trace the experiences of individual cancer patients in the healthcare system. Hospital inpatient records spanning approximately 10 years, both before and after their cancer diagnosis, were used to describe patients’ patterns of healthcare use, burden of disease and other clinical outcomes, such as duration of survival after diagnosis and development of associated diseases.
The researchers also carried out a further analysis of cancer registries and national statistics to estimate the prevalence of cancer in the UK. Information on the number of people admitted to hospital and their treatments was used to provisionally describe the types of health problems cancer patients seek hospital care for, the severity of illness, and the impact of their cancer on other aspects of their health.
The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The researchers note that the statistics released on the Macmillan Cancer Support website relating to associated health problems should be considered provisional and require further clinical validation.
What were the basic results?
The Macmillan Cancer Support website gives the following cancer prevalence figures that had previously been published by the British Journal of Cancer and various government registries, including the Office for National Statistics. These data indicated that:
- 42% of people who die in the UK will have had a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives
- the number of people in the UK living with cancer has increased by approximately one third in the last decade
Provisional data released by Macmillan from the study presented at the conference indicate that out of a group of colorectal cancer patients who survive five to seven years post-diagnosis:
- 22% will have advanced cancer
- 42% will have ongoing health problems such as cardiovascular or intestinal diseases
- 36% will have no ongoing health problems related to their treatment
How did the researchers interpret the results?
Macmillan Cancer Support attributes this increase in the proportion of the population living with cancer to several factors, including:
- improvement in cancer diagnosis and treatments, which prolongs survival
- an ageing population, as older people are more likely to develop cancer
The charity recommends an increase in services to improve cancer outcomes. Macmillan urges the NHS to adapt to shifting trends in cancer prevalence and survivability through improved service planning and personalised care.
The headlines that 4 in 10 people will now get cancer at some point in their lives may sound worrying. However, it does not mean that the number is increasing because more people are being exposed to cancer risks.
Some of these cancer cases may be due to avoidable lifestyle factors, such as obesity, alcohol and smoking. However, many others will be due to improved screening, diagnostic and treatment options, which allow physicians to detect cancer earlier than previously possible, and to treat the cancer more successfully once it has been detected.
The number of people living with cancer has increased as cancer detection and survival has improved and people are generally living longer. The treatment of other diseases that used to account for many deaths has also improved. Where once they would have died from a disease such as heart disease, they are now living longer and dying from cancer.
A longer average life expectancy, combined with improved diagnostic and treatment technologies, is likely to account for much of the increase in the number of people in the UK living with cancer. Many cancers are now treated as chronic conditions rather than a terminal illness.
It is important to note that the risk of being diagnosed with cancer is not constant and may vary significantly over the course of one’s life. Age and lifestyle are significant risk factors for cancer diagnosis.
There are ways to reduce the risks of developing cancer. These include eating well, exercising and avoiding smoking and heavy alcohol consumption. Read our Live Well article on how to cut your risk of cancer.