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'We are facing into a cancer epidemic': More people are surviving, but diagnoses continue to rise

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both women and men.

shutterstock_738616081 Source: Shutterstock/Moobin

THE NUMBER OF cancer diagnoses in Ireland is continuing to rise every year, primarily due to an ageing and growing population.

However, cancer rates appear to have stabilised or even fallen in recent years, once age and population size are taken into account.

The National Cancer Registry’s latest annual report, which has been published today, also shows that more people are surviving cancer.

About 167,700 cancer survivors (previously diagnosed with an invasive cancer other than non-melanoma skin cancer) were estimated to be alive at the end of 2015. That’s the equivalent of 3.6% of the population.

This includes, for the first time, estimates of the numbers of survivors from cancers diagnosed before the Registry was established in 1994.

Donal Buggy, Head of Services and Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society, said it is “hugely welcome to see that more people are surviving cancer”.

However, he added: “The number of people in Ireland being diagnosed with this disease continues to rise. As such, we are facing into a cancer epidemic.

“If our health system is not properly equipped to deal with this, our ability to deliver the best outcomes for patients will diminish.”

Most common cancers 

The six most common cancers represented among the surviving (prevalent) cancer patient population were: breast cancer (24% of all cancer survivors), prostate cancer (20%), colorectal cancer (13%), skin melanoma (7%), non-Hodgkin lymphoma (4%) and lung cancer (3%).

Some 40,570 people in Ireland are diagnosed with cancer or a related tumour each year.

Based on the latest available complete information, it is estimated that 33,180 invasive cancers, or 22,320 cancers excluding the generally non-fatal non-melanoma cancers of skin, were diagnosed annually during the period 2015-2017.

Source: Irish Cancer Society/YouTube

The risk of developing cancer was higher for men than for women, both overall and for most cancer types.

Rates of the top three major cancers in men (prostate, colorectal and lung) are now declining or static.

Rates of female breast cancer have fallen since 2008, though lung cancer rates in women are still rising. The Registry said these trends “broadly reflect a range of public health and early-diagnosis initiatives in Ireland”.

8,770 deaths

Cancer is the second most common cause of death in Ireland after diseases of the circulatory system, and an annual average of about 8,770 deaths from invasive cancer occurred during 2012-2014.

Lung cancer was the leading cause of cancer death in both sexes, accounting for 19% of cancer deaths in women and 23% in men. The risk of dying of cancer was about 34% higher for men than for women.

Overall cancer mortality rates (adjusted for age and population) have continued to fall since 1994, as have mortality rates for most individual cancers. However, mortality rates for liver cancer, melanoma of skin and (in women) lung cancer and uterine cancer continue to increase, reflecting ongoing increases in incidence of these cancers.

Commenting on the figures, Professor Kerri Clough-Gorr, Director of the Registry and Professor of Cancer Epidemiology at University College Cork, said: “As the population grows and ages, and treatment and survival improve, the population of cancer survivors — now estimated to be almost 170,000 people — continues to grow.

“Planning for the long-term support and follow-up needs of cancer survivors is an important health priority, as recognised by the recently published National Cancer Strategy 2017-2026.”

Buggy echoed these sentiments, saying the figures show why “implementing the National Cancer Strategy in full is so important”.

“A cancer diagnosis can have a lasting impact on survivors, from debilitating treatment side-effects to continued mental health issues. Disappointingly, though, such issues have historically been underserved by our health services,” he added.

National Cancer Strategy 

The national strategy outlines a comprehensive plan for cancer care in Ireland, which includes increasing the proportion of cancers diagnosed at an earlier stage so that more lives can be saved.

“This vision requires investment to make it a reality. The government needs to ensure that resources are frontloaded and made available early in the Strategy to ensure its recommendations are fully implemented,” Buggy said.

Responding to today’s report, Health Minister Simon Harris said he is “delighted to see a reduction in the incidence of cancer”.

“The figures in the report highlight the need for additional support for patients living with and beyond cancer – an issue that is highlighted in the National Cancer Strategy 2017-2026. I am delighted to have secured additional funding for 2018 to facilitate the phased implementation of the Cancer Strategy as a key strategic initiative.”

Harris added that the report also reinforces the need to promote cancer prevention measures which offer the most cost-effective, long-term approach for cancer control. “My department and the HSE are continuing to promote healthy lifestyles, through initiatives to reduce tobacco use and through the broader Healthy Ireland programme,” he said.

Read: ‘My father went to the doctor with pains, nine weeks later he was gone’

Read: Doctors say health budget will do little to improve ‘overcrowded death zone’ hospitals

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Órla Ryan

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