Live Long & Prosper!

A bit of good news today.

Macmillan Cancer Support have released a report, Cancer: Then and Now, which shows that people diagnosed with cancer are twice as likely to survive for at least a decade they were in the early 1970s.

Cancer incidence rates UK 1979-2013Now this is a great thing to see.  Quite often, I’ve heard people complaining about the fact that cancer incidence rates have risen since the 1970s.  And it’s true, more people are diagnosed with cancer nowadays, as you can see in this graph from CRUK.  For both men and women, while the lines may wobble a bit, the overall trend is an increase in cancer incidence.  On average, the incidence rate in 1979 was 450 per 100,000.  By 2013, this had risen to 600 per 100,000.  Or, to express it as the relative risk so popular in the media, cancer incidence rose by 33.3% in that timeframe.  Now this can seem down-heartening.  Depressing, even.  And Scary.  But what does this increase actually mean?

I’ve heard complaints that this increase is down to our lifestyles.  E numbers in food….GMOs….poor diets…..pollution… name it.  And, in one sense, these people are right.  In a sense, increased cancer incidence is down to our lifestyles.  Just not in the way that they imagine.

UK Life expectancy 1980-2012As I’ve mentioned before – waaaaay back in Chinese Whispers – cancer is, generally, a disease of aging.  The longer you live, the bigger the probability that you’ll get cancer.  And that’s the point.  Yes, it’s true that cancer incidence has increased since the 1970s, but so has life expectancy.  This figure from UK National Statistics, and it covers, more or less, the same timeframe as the cancer incidence figure above.  Now, what you can see right away is that life expectancy is also increasing on average, from 71 & 77 for men and women respectively in 1980, to 78.7 & 82.6 in 2010-12.  And this equates to a rise of approx 11% for men and 7% for women.

So we are living longer.  And as cancer is more likely the longer you live, cancer rates would be expected to rise.  “But!” I hear you cry, “Surely cancer incidence is rising faster than life expectancy!”  Why would that be??”

Well, for a start, this is a logical fallacy.  There’s no direct connection between the two sets of statistics, so there’s no reason to expect that they will go up or go down by exactly the same amount.  And people do die from other things, so this will lower life expectancy.

But it is also down to one of the factors highlighted in the MacMillan report.  We are getting better at diagnosing cancer – and in early diagnosis.  So, 40 years ago, people might have cancer for a long time before diagnosis.  Some may even have died from undiagnosed diseases.  But improvements in scanning technology and in the development of tests for cancer-specific markers mean that this is less likely.  So we can spot these things earlier.  And the earlier a disease is found, the more treatable it is.

Marginal Gains 2I’ve shown this figure from CRUK before – and I’m more than happy to show it again!  This one shows how the survival rates for the commonly found cancers in the UK have changed from the early 70s until 2010.  And, as you can see, all the arrows are pointing to the right.  Survival is increasing across the board.  So, yes, cancer incidence rates are increasing.  But detection & survival rates are increasing too.

Better chemotherapy treatments are available.  Cancer patients are fast-tracked to ensure their treatment starts earlier.  The improvements in scanning technology which allow better diagnoses also give surgeons a better view of tumours – where they are, how big they are, whether they’ve spread.  And that makes successful surgery more likely and also increases the potential for other treatments such as radiotherapy.

Does this mean everything is Okay-Dokay-Fine?  No, of course not.  There’s still a lot to do.  But, in a time where it seems as if everything’s going down the crapper (Hi there, Brexit!  Yo, President Trump!), it’s nice to have a wee bit of good news for a change.  And if you are suffering from cancer, or know someone who is, then that’s what you’ll get today.  This is the (ahem) “best” time there’s ever been to be a cancer patient.  Your chances of surviving, of living a long & happy life are better now that they’ve ever, EVER been.  Might not seem like much, but that tiny sliver of light can mean a helluva lot, if all you see is darkness.

So have a good day, folks.  Live Long & Prosper.


MacMillan Cancer Support (2016). Cancer: Then and Now. Diagnosis, treatment and aftercare from 1970–2016 MacMillan Cancer Support
AG McCluskey (2016). Life Long & Prosper! Zongo’s Cancer Diaries


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