UK breast cancer rates continue relentless rise

The number of women diagnosed with breast cancer each year continues to rise, despite the expenditure of millions of pounds on efforts to prevent it. Scientists and cancer organisations have struggled to stem the tide – but to no avail.

The latest figures published by Cancer Research UK show a total of 47,700 women were diagnosed in 2008, over 5,000 more than a decade earlier, a rise of 3.5 per cent. The numbers affected by the disease have doubled since 1971 and the lifetime risk has risen to one in eight, from one in nine a decade ago.

Breast cancer is Britain's most common cancer, despite principally affecting only one sex (there are a few hundred cases in men each year).

The rise is being driven by increasing prosperity, and modern lifestyles and has been seen in all European countries. It is linked with exposure to the female hormone oestrogen which is influenced by changes in reproduction and diet. Some scientists believe more research effort should be expended on finding a vaccine against the disease.

The biggest increase is in the 50 to 69 age group, the post-war baby boomers who enjoyed a richer diet, delayed childbearing to go out to work, had smaller families and reduced breast-feeding.

Increased drinking (for each single unit of alcohol per day, the risk rises by 7 per cent), rising obesity and the use of hormone replacement therapy (though this has now dropped) have also contributed. Better diagnosis through screening, which is concentrated in this age group, and improved recording of cases in local cancer registries are additional factors.

The good news on breast cancer, where research has yielded big gains, is in the area of treatment which has seen a dramatic fall in the death rate.

In 1971, the first year statistics were collected, 12,472 women died from the disease and over the next 18 years the death toll steadily rose, peaking at 15,625 in 1989. Since then the death rate has plummeted bringing the number of women dying down to 11,990 in 2007 (the latest figures available) despite the hugely increased numbers affected with the disease.

Almost two out of every three women with breast cancer now survive the disease beyond 20 years and more than three-quarters survive for at least 10 years. The earlier cancer is treated the better the outlook.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of health information, said: "Women cannot change their genes but small changes in everyday habits can help to reduce cancer risk. Cutting back on alcohol, taking more exercise and eating a diet high in fibre but low in saturated fat can help maintain a healthy weight – which in turn reduces breast cancer risk. Mammograms will pick up breast cancers early on and we know that the earlier a cancer is detected the more successful treatment is likely to be."

Dr Rachel Greig, senior policy officer at Breakthrough Breast Cancer said: "These figures are a wake-up call and should not be ignored. More women are developing breast cancer and, although survival is improving we clearly have much further to go. A two-pronged attack is needed – commitment to research into the causes of breast cancer, supported by women arming themselves with knowledge of the risks that may contribute to the disease."

She added: "Some risk factors, such as getting older, cannot be changed but the good news is that others can. By drinking less, maintaining a healthy weight and getting physically active, women can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer."

Case study: 'It's not the horrid disease it once was'

Sarah-Jane Phillips, 39

"I found a lump in my breast one evening, which was quite small, and I felt it, and thought: "Oh, that's unusual," but you never think it's going to be anything to worry about. It took me a couple of days to go to the doctor.

"I was seen nine days later at the hospital and, I'm not joking but, literally within an hour it was diagnosed. That was good on one hand, but shocking and completely overwhelming. I do know people who've had tests and had to go back five days later.

"I had to have a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. Now I have check-ups every six months, until after five years you're considered free of disease.

"You read that if you drink more you can increase your risk, and it's important to maintain a healthy weight, and get more exercise. I now exercise five times a week and make sure I eat healthily. I'm more aware of the importance of keeping yourself healthy.

"I have two little girls, aged 10 and 11. That was the most frightening thing. But they're completely unaffected.

"The only thing I can do is to raise awareness, if you're breast aware that's an important message to get across. Years ago the survival rates weren't as great as they are now. It's not the horrid disease it once was, it's certainly treatable. And I think the NHS is fab, and we're lucky to have the NHS. My treatment has been absolutely outstanding."

How the numbers add up

47,700 women diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, over 5,000 more than a decade earlier

1:8 Lifetime risk of breast cancer, compared to 1:9 a decade ago

11,990 women died from the disease in 2007, compared to a peak of 15,625 in 1989

20 years two-thirds of women with breast cancer survive for at least two decades