Sharp rise in cases is blamed on increased prosperity, delayed childbirth and reduced breast-feeding

An epidemic of breast cancer is sweeping Europe, with a 16 per cent rise in the malignant disease in two years. It has become the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Europe, despite the fact that it almost only affects one sex.

Latest estimates by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, show there were 429,900 cases diagnosed in 2006, amounting to almost one in three of all cancers in women. In Britain, breast cancer rates have soared by over 80 per cent in the past 30 years.

It is the first time breast cancer has out-ranked lung cancer in Europe. It is almost exclusively a disease of women, with about 2,000 cases a year in men.

Peter Boyle, director of IARC, which published the figures in Annals of Oncology, said the rise in breast cancer cases was occurring worldwide. "It is something that continues to astonish me. We have finished another piece of work looking at each region, and one thing we noticed is that in every region breast cancer is the commonest or second commonest cancer."

The global rise in breast cancer is being driven by increasing prosperity, the trend to smaller families and delayed childbirth, with a reduced period of breast- feeding - all factors known to increase its incidence.

Even in Europe, the same trends had been seen with declining birth rates, smaller families and later age at first pregnancy, Professor Boyle said. "These are factors outside our control. It is one of the consequences of globalisation and increasing prosperity," he said.

Professor Boyle said the best hope of tackling the breast cancer epidemic was to develop preventive drugs that could be taken safely. Three trials of the hormonal drug tamoxifen, used to treat breast cancer, had proved that it was preventive. But the drug caused unacceptable side effects, including an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke.

"We are looking for the Holy Grail - a drug that would mimic the effect of having a large family, early childbirth and a longer period of breast-feeding. If we could find a hormonal composition to do that we could make a difference," he said.


Earlier First Period

Improved nutrition has seen the age of the first period fall from 16-17 a century ago to 12-13 today.

Delayed Childbirth

Women are postponing childbirth, increasing the risk by 3 per cent for each year of delay.

Less Breast-Feeding

Breast-feeding helps to protect against cancer, but smaller families and more working mothers mean the time spent breast-feeding has reduced.

Smaller Families

Family size has reduced, and the more children a woman has the lower her risk.

Later Menopause

Each year that menopause is delayed raises risk 3 per cent.


Hormone replacement therapy increases the risk by 66 per cent among users compared to those who have never taken it.

Rising Obesity

Average body weights are rising, and around 8 per cent of breast cancers may be attributable to obesity.

Alcohol Consumption

Drinking among women is increasing, and the risk rises by 7 per cent for each alcoholic drink consumed daily.

High-Fat Diet

Studies have suggested a high-fat diet causes a small increase in risk.

Increasing Prosperity

It is one of the few cancers commoner in prosperous women because of age at childbirth and better nutrition.