Why rising cancer rates among over-45s are not all bad news

The risk of developing cancer in middle age has risen by almost a fifth within a generation, causing thousands more individuals to live under the burden of the diagnosis.

Among men and women aged 40-59, the number with cancer has grown from 44,000 in 1979 to 61,000 in 2008.

But the news is not all bad, according to Cancer Research UK, which published the figures. Much of the increase is due to the introduction of screening, allowing for earlier diagnosis and increasing the chances of successful treatment.

Women have seen the biggest rise with an additional 12,500 cases. Overall, the cancer rate among the middle aged has risen from 329 per 100,000 to 388, an increase of 17.9 per cent.

Cancer Research UK said the chances of surviving cancer for at least 10 years had doubled to almost 50 per cent, thanks to research. But at least some of the improvement reflects the fact that the earlier a patient is diagnosed with cancer the longer they live with it.

The key question is whether they live longer than they otherwise would have if they had been diagnosed later, and this is harder to measure.

If they don't, then the only effect of earlier diagnosis is that patients live longer with the knowledge that they have cancer, and endure the anxiety and distress that involves.

Nisha Sidhu, a 44-year-old mother of three from Berkshire, was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago after noticing a lump in her breast while taking a shower. She said: "I didn't tell any of the family but after a couple of weeks I went to the doctor. Even when I was sent for a mammogram I was in denial about what it could be. I felt very well, had no other symptoms and there was no breast cancer in my family. It was a real shock [when the results came] but I knew I just had to get on with treatment."

After surgery to remove the lump and chemotherapy, Nisha is now on a course of tamoxifen to prevent a recurrence of the cancer. She also runs a support group where she has met other middle aged breast cancer survivors. "I hadn't realised how many women in their 40s and 50s are being diagnosed," she said.

Among men, the most common cancer is of the prostate, which has displaced lung cancer from the top spot. Lung cancer has fallen by 60 per cent since the late 1970s as a result of the decline in smoking. Among women, breast cancer is the commonest, but melanoma – skin cancer associated with sunburn – is the fastest rising. It's incidence has tripled in 30 years.

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said: "There has been undeniable progress in the treatment of cancer over the last 40 years and many more people are surviving the disease. But we must redouble our efforts ... so that cancer survival becomes the norm for patients, irrespective of the cancer they have or their age at diagnosis."