August 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
At some point in our lives, two in every five of us, the highest proportion yet recorded, will hear the words “You have cancer”. Alarmingly, this figure is going to rise. Respected international research has predicted that the number of cases worldwide will more than double from 12.5 million in 2008 to 26.4 million in 2030.
Statistically, you’re most likely to hear the news later in life as the average age for diagnosis is 68. (There’s an old oncologist’s joke that when we all live to the age of 200, then we will all die of cancer because we’ve escaped everything else.)
Yet cases among younger people are also on the rise. The latest figures from Cancer Research UK show that rates of cancer in people aged 40 to 59 (young for cancer) have increased by 20 per cent since the 1970s. Why this is happening is a matter of intense debate — only this week scientists at the University of Oxford reported that taller people were more likely to suffer from a wide range of cancers. Cancer Research UK believes that it is a combination of modern lifestyle factors such as obesity, lack of exercise and increased alcohol intake that can increase your chance of getting certain cancers, especially of the breast.
But others claim that it’s not the whole story and that at least part of the answer lies in our testing and screening programmes. Some experts believe that it is telling that the top two cancers — breast for women and prostate for men — have increased by 60 per cent and 55 per cent respectively since 1979. These are also the two cancers covered by either a test or screening: all women over 50 are screened for breast cancer, and men can request a PSA test for prostate cancer. It doesn’t tell you whether you have cancer, but it does reveal if you have high levels of the PSA protein in your blood, which is often (but not always) an indication of cancer. It also doesn’t tell you how fast or slow-growing the cancer is; many prostate cancers grow so slowly that they would never cause a problem if left untreated.
“There’s good evidence that if you do screening, then you prevent deaths,” says Professor William Flew, medical adviser to the World Cancer Research Fund. “But I think we are also picking up cancers that never needed to be picked up in the first place.”