Lung cancer will overtake breast cancer as the biggest cancer killer among women “within the next few years”, leading experts have said, as more women who began smoking in the 1960s and 1970s succumb to the disease in old age.
Across Europe, lung cancer in women, and pancreatic cancer in both men and women, are now the only types for which mortality rates continue to rise.
The mortality rate for lung cancer among women in the 27 EU states will rise by eight per cent in 2014, while the number of breast cancer deaths falls by nine per cent, according to a new international study published today .
Researchers at the University of Milan and Lausanne Hospital in Switzerland project that the trends will continue, with lung cancer likely to become the biggest cause of cancer death among women by the end of the decade.
Overall, cancer deaths have reduced by 26 per cent among men and by 20 per cent in women over the past 25 years, thanks to improved treatments and quicker diagnosis from screening programmes and imaging technology.
However, the delayed impact of widespread changes in the demographic of European smokers, which saw large numbers of women take up smoking in the 1960s and 1970s, means that lung cancer in women is bucking the trend as these same women reach their 60s and 70s, when people are most likely to develop lung cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is the only other type for which mortality rates continue to rise, for both men and women. Pancreatic cancer has few symptoms in its early stages and is often diagnosed too late for any treatments to be effective. It has the lowest survival rates of the 22 most common cancers.
Professor Carlo La Vecchia, of the University of Milan, told The Independent that experts did not have a “satisfactory explanation” for the increase. While around a third of pancreatic cancers can be attributed to smoking, and obesity and diabetes are also risk factors, the true causes of most cases is unknown.
“The key question on pancreatic cancer is why it is not falling due to the decline on tobacco smoking,” Professor La Vecchia said. “We have no satisfactory explanation – nobody does. Smoking accounts for about a third of pancreatic cancers, diabetes probably about five per cent. We don’t know the causes of two thirds of pancreatic cancers – presumably the reason for the increase lies in those causes.”
Lung cancer is predicted to kill 187,000 men and 83,000 women this year, while pancreatic cancer will kill 41,300 men and 41,000 women, the researchers project.
The new study, published in the journal Annals of Oncology today, predicts that 742,500 men and 581,100 women will die from cancer in the 27 EU states in 2014. Although the absolute numbers of people dying each year are increasing, in line with growing and ageing populations, the number of cancer deaths per 100,000 people has fallen since 2009 by seven per cent among men and five per cent among women.
Around 250,000 fewer people will die from cancer this year than would have been the case if death rates had remained unchanged since 1988, according to the study.
“In the late 80s, we were at the end of years of continuous cancer rise in Europe and in America as well. The changing trend has been a major success,” Professor La Vecchia said. “We could have done better if tobacco control were improved earlier and more efficiently.”
However, Alex Ford, chief executive of Pancreatic Cancer UK said the findings on pancreatic cancer were “incredibly disheartening”.
“Surely this must highlight the desperate need for more research into the causes, early detection and improved treatment options for the disease,” she said.