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One in two people in the UK will get cancer

Public health and NHS cancer services must be bolstered to cope with rising demand

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 04 February 2015

One in every two people in the UK will develop cancer at some time during their lives, according to the latest and most accurate predictions. Experts said Cancer Research UK’s forecast*, published today in the British Journal of Cancer, means that much more needs to be done to improve prevention, earlier diagnosis and effective treatment.

Cancer Research UK said previous estimates calculated using different methods had found that one in three people in the UK would develop cancer in their lifetimes, which could rise to one in two at some point in the future – but, in fact, we have already reached that point for those born in the early 1960s and beyond. The charity said: “From this we can now forecast that a child born today has a one in two chance of developing cancer at some point in their lives.”

The primary factor behind this rise, it pointed out, is simply that the population is ageing as a result of improved healthcare and longer life expectancy – and cancer is more common among the elderly.
Cancer Research UK has called for public health and NHS cancer services to be bolstered to enable them to cope with the UK’s growing and ageing population – and “the looming demands for better diagnostics, treatments, and earlier diagnosis”. And it added that to reduce cancer’s impact in coming decades, prevention also has an important role.

One of the study’s authors Professor Peter Sasieni, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “Cancer is primarily a disease of old age, with more than 60% 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.”

He went on: “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.”

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Harpal Kumar added: “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.”

He added: “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.”

* A S Ahmad, et al. 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. Advance online publication 3 February 2015; doi: 10.1038/bjc.2014.606

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