A report from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that the number of new cancer cases worldwide in a single year will rise by 70 per cent from 14.1 million in 2012 to 24 million in 2035. Annual deaths from cancer will almost double, from 8.2 million to 14.6 million. One of the editors of the World Cancer Report, Dr Bernard Stewart from the University of New South Wales in Australia, talked about the need to combat “the tidal wave of cancer which we see coming across the world”.
This is alarming language, and the numbers are big, but are we getting the right story here? The headline words and figures suggest that some great change is upon us that’s putting all of us at greater risk of contracting cancer. In fact, in the developed world, the opposite is true. The biggest contributor to cancer is smoking, and the habit is in decline in developed nations. Other factors thought to contribute to cancer, including environmental pollution, are generally moving in the right direction. The main reason why cancer rates are increasing in developed countries is in fact a positive one: we are living much longer than ever before. Where previous generations might have succumbed to infectious disease or malnutrition, we are living long enough to give a range of different cancers time to take hold.
Longevity is also a major contributing factor to the predicted increase in the developing world. Again, this is good news. In Asia particularly, people are now living long enough to contract diseases associated with the affluent West — heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is true that smoking is on the rise in the developing world, that environmental pollution has increased dramatically in countries like China, and that some affluent dietary choices that may play a role in certain cancers are also spreading. But essentially the expected rise in cancer prevalence worldwide is the product of an increasingly long-lived population.
Cause to celebrate the coming tidal wave surely?