Brinkmann Gynaecology

Why are cancer rates increasing?

Cancer Research UK’s new figures today demonstrate the impact of cancer on society with more accuracy.

Half of us will hear the words “you have cancer” at some point in our lives.


This isn’t to say that progress is not being made: more people are beating cancer today than ever before. Survival has doubled in the last 40 years. And half of people diagnosed will survive their cancer for more than 10 years, an all-time high.

Previously more than one person in three would develop cancer at some point during their life – in other words, the so-called ‘lifetime risk’ was more than 1 in 3.

Cancer Research UK’s latest estimate now puts our chances of developing the disease at 1 in 2.

Let’s be clear – this isn’t a sudden increase in risk but a gradual increase in risk, that’s taken place over decades.

So this begs the obvious question: just why is our risk increasing?

The simple answer is, as the animation above shows: most of us are living longer.

Growing problem

By far the biggest risk factor for most cancers is simply getting older. More than three-quarters of all people diagnosed with cancer in the UK are over the age of 60.

And this is because cancer is a disease of our genes – the bits of DNA code that hold the instructions for all of the microscopic machinery inside our cells. Over time, mistakes accumulate in this code  and it’s these mistakes that can kick start a cell’s journey towards becoming cancerous.

The longer we live, the more time we have for errors to build up. And so, as time passes, our risk of developing cancer goes up, as we accumulate more of these faults in our genes.

But we can stack the odds of avoiding cancer in our favour. 

Things that happen throughout our lives can speed up – or slow down – the rate at which errors occur in our genes. These include things we can control, and some we can’t.

They include our lifestyle, our genetics & family history, our exposure to viruses, the job we do, the air we breathe – and they can all play different roles in our overall risk of developing the disease.

Specific cancers, specific reasons

The main reason cancer risk overall is rising is because of our increasing lifespan. And the researchers behind these new statistics reckon that about two-thirds of the increase is due to longevity.

The rest, they think, is caused by changes in cancer rates across different age groups. And when you look at these changes in detail, you can see patterns reflected in how we live our lives, clearly showing how important an impact our lifestyle can have.

For example, diets high in red and processed meats have contributed to the rise in gynaecological cancer cases. And more and more people are becoming overweight and obese in the UK, which raises the risk of developing a number of cancers.

Changes in alcohol consumption play an important role too.

In women, breast screening has meant we’re detecting more cancers and finding them at a younger age (although some of this may also be because of ‘overdiagnosis’ – something Cancer Research UK discusses at length in this blog post). But the increase in breast cancer rates is also down to changes in our lifestyles: women have fewer babies later, and breastfeed less.

But these increases need to be set against one, dramatic, decrease. Smoking remains the largest preventable cause of cancer in the world, responsible for more than one in four UK cancer deaths, and nearly a fifth of all cancer cases.

Rates of certain other cancers have fallen too – notably those linked to certain infections.

The NHS screening programme has almost certainly prevented an epidemic of cervical cancer – rates of which are expected to fall further as the effects of the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) – the virus that causes it – kick in.

Cancer survival has doubled

Forty years ago, 1 in 4 people survived the disease for at least 10 years. Today that figure is 2 in 4.


Research has shown us the impact that a healthy lifestyle can have – as well as the role chance plays in our risk of getting cancer. As individuals, we can stack the odds in our favour by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, being more active and drinking less alcohol. We can also get to know our bodies and what’s normal for us so we can spot any unusual or persistent changes early on.

But it’s not just about individuals


Politicians have an important role to play in supporting NHS cancer services, making sure patients have access to the best treatments, and supporting public health measures to keep smoking rates in decline, and tackle obesity.

We need to make sure doctors have the right tools and support to recognise the signs and symptoms of cancer, and refer the right patients for further tests as early as possible.

And last, but certainly not least, we need our researchers to continue asking questions, searching for answers and making the breakthroughs that will help more patients survive the disease.

That’s why we join Cancer Research UK on World Cancer Day and say #wewillunite to beat cancer sooner.

Source: Cancer Research UK blog