Study finds ‘substantial decline’ in UK cancer deaths over 25 years

Cancer cases among middle-aged men and women have seen a modest rise over the last quarter of a century, but there has also been a substantial decline in death rates, according to researchers.

The fall in death rates was likely to be due to fewer people smoking, screening programmes and improved treatment, said the study authors in the British Medical Journal.

“This major study brings to life improvements that have been made to tackle cancer in recent decades”

Michelle Mitchell

In contrast, a rise identified among some less common cancers might be due to higher levels of overweight and obesity, among other risk factors, they said.

They used UK-wide cancer registration and population data to examine trends in new cancer cases and deaths for all cancers combined and 22 common cancers in men and women aged 35-69 years.

Results showed that the number of cancer cases rose by 57% for men, from 55,014 cases registered in 1993 to 86,297 in 2018, and by 48% for women, from 60,187 to 88,970.

When analysed by age, the researchers found the average annual increase in cases was a “modest” 0.8% in both sexes, which was predominantly driven by increases in prostate and breast cancers.

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However, four less common cancers showed concerning increases in cases – more than 2% per year – in both sexes: liver, melanoma skin, oral, and kidney.

Overall, the number of cancer deaths fell over the 25-year period, by 20% in men, from 32,878 to 26,322, and 17% in women, from 28,516 to 23,719,

Death rates fell even further, by 37% in men and 33% in women, when accounting for the growing and ageing population over the 25-year period.

After accounting for differences in age, deaths for all cancers combined fell by 2% per year in men and by 1.6% per year in women across nearly all the cancers examined.

The largest declines were noted by the researchers for stomach, mesothelioma and bladder cancers in men, and stomach, cervical cancers and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in women.

Only liver, oral, and uterine cancers showed an annual increase in deaths of 1% or more, according to the study authors, from Cancer Research UK, University College London, the University of Leeds, and Public Health Scotland.

Although the findings were observational, the conclusions that can be drawn from the analysis were, overall, “positive and reassuring”, said the authors.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive said: “This major study brings to life improvements that have been made to tackle cancer in recent decades.

“If we take lung cancer, for example, we can clearly see that reducing smoking prevalence saves lives,” she said.

“But cancer is still a defining health issue in the UK that impacts nearly one in two people. People face long waits for vital tests and treatment and cancer cases are on the rise,” she added.

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“Cancer patients won’t feel the full benefits of advances in research breakthroughs and innovation, including new cancer treatments, without long-term plan and funding from the UK government.”

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