Cancer deaths plummet in middle-aged people

Fewer middle-aged people are dying from cancer in the UK than at any point over the last 25 years, a new study from Cancer Research UK has revealed. *   

Published today in the British Medical Journal, this is the first major study to examine trends in cancer incidence and mortality amongst middle-aged adults (35-69 yrs.) in the UK between 1993 to 2018.  

Researchers said that analysing trends in this age group helps to understand the impact of different risk factors on the population as well as the likely future patterns of cancer in older patients. 

“This study helps us to see the progress we’ve made in beating cancer and where challenges clearly remain,” said Jon Shelton, Cancer Research UK’s head of cancer intelligence and lead author of the study. 

“This research is a useful benchmarking tool for the next 25 years and beyond so that we can take action to save more lives from cancer. We must continue to prevent as many cancer cases as possible, diagnose cancers sooner and develop kinder treatments.” 

The good news

The study showed that overall, mortality rates had dropped by 37% in men and by 33% in women.  

In examining data for 23 cancer groups or types, it also found that cervical cancer mortality rates decreased by 54.3%, showing how cervical screening has already helped to prevent cancer and stop the disease in its tracks, with HPV vaccination set to make a further huge impact on reducing the disease. 

The study also revealed that lung cancer mortality rates decreased by 53.2% in men and by 20.7% in women, linked to reduced smoking rates in recent decades.  

Deaths in breast and bowel cancers have also dropped, showing how screening programmes help to save lives by preventing bowel cancers and by diagnosing both cancers earlier leading to more treatment options. 

Despite progress, challenges remain

Although rates in premature cancer deaths fell by over a third in this period, the data also exposed challenges across the UK’s health system. 

The charity warned that cancer cases are on the rise overall. The data highlights that cancer cases rose by 57% in men and 48% in women over the 25 years, largely due to a growing and ageing population as well as some lifestyle factors impacting people’s cancer risk.  

Researchers also found concerning increases in rates of melanoma, liver, oral and kidney cancers.  

In addition, death rates for liver, oral and uterine cancers – all linked to risk factors including UV exposure, alcohol, overweight and obesity, and smoking – were all increasing, following the increase in rates for these cancers. 

Cancer Research UK said there is an immense challenge ahead to maintain progress, with all UK nations failing to meet their cancer waiting times targets and NHS staff under extreme pressure.  

“With cancer cases and mortality for some sites on the rise and improvements in survival slowing, it’s vital that the UK Government takes bold action to keep momentum up,” added Shelton. “Now is the time to go further and faster, building on the successes of decades of research and improvements in healthcare.” 

We need to take action

The findings of this research highlight where the UK Government can focus its efforts to help to save more lives from cancer, as well as the steps people can take to reduce their risk of the disease. 

Cancer Research UK is urging political leaders to deliver long-term cancer strategies in all UK nations, including a National Cancer Council in England to drive cross-government action on cancer. 

If bold action is taken against smoking, overweight and obesity and alcohol, nearly 37,000 cancer cases could be prevented by 2040 in the UK and tens of thousands more in future years. ** Preventing ill health not only benefits cancer patients and their families, it also leads to huge gains for the economy and the NHS. 

Cancer Research UK is also calling on the Government to diagnose more cancers earlier. Bowel cancer screening should be optimised to reduce inequalities in access and reach as many eligible people as possible.  

Targeted lung screening, which is being rolled out across England, will help to save more lives from a cancer type that takes more lives than any other. It is vital that other UK nations follow suit to reach more at-risk people. 

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