By 2018, the number of people affected will have risen 70 per cent to more than one million. The sharp increase is only partly accounted for by the ageing of the population and will confirm what some doctors have long said: that the war against the disease is being lost.
In spite of the expenditure of hundreds of millions of pounds on research into combating cancer, the number of people affected has risen steadily for the last 25 years. If it goes on rising at the same rate, by 2018 one in two of the population will succumb to the disease at some point in their lives compared with one in three today.
A study by Cambridge University scientists, commissioned by the charity Macmillan Cancer Relief, says that in 20 years the annual toll of new cancer cases will have grown by 56 per cent and the total number of people living with cancer by 68 per cent. The figures exclude skin cancers other than melanoma which are considered curable and at present account for 30,000 cases a year.
The population living with the disease in Britain will have risen from under 800,000 today to 1.3 million by 2018, imposing a huge extra burden on the NHS. Treatment for cancer is mostly long-term, involving expensive drugs, surgery and radiotherapy. A similar increase is expected in Europe and other western countries.
The Macmillan study is in line with figures published by the Office of National Statistics last year which showed a 30 per cent increase in new cases of cancer in women and a 21 per cent increase in men between 1979 and 1991. The increase is attributed to improved treatments, which mean people live longer with cancer, and rises in certain types of cancer, as well as the ageing population. The effect of ageing accounted for a third of the rise in women and half of the rise in men, according to the statistics office.
Although research has scored some spectacular gains, especially against childhood cancers, progress against the main ones of lung, breast and bowel has been limited. Medical groups have compared cancer research to the attitude of the First World War general who declared: "Casualties: huge. Ground gained: negligible. Conclusion: press on."
One research charity hit back yesterday, claiming the Macmillan predictions were based on a worst-case scenario. The Cancer Research Campaign said: "We would consider it a failure if it were to come to pass."
Professor Gordon McVie, the CRC director, said the report took no account of successes expected over the next two decades in reducing smoking, changing diets and developing new preventive measures based on vaccines and gene therapy.
Diane Stockton, a researcher at the East Anglia Cancer Registry and one of the authors of the study admitted it took no account of changes in behaviour that might occur in the next 20 years but said these could take decades before they reduced the numbers with cancer. "Hopefully things will not look quite as bleak in 20 years time," she said.
The Macmillan study, based on figures from the East Anglia and North West regions, forecasts that prostate cancer, which rises steeply with advancing age, will triple by 2018 with more than one in four men affected during their lifetime compared with less than one in ten in 1990.
Breast cancer is set to rise from 9 per cent of women affected in 1990 to 13.7 per cent. The rise is believed to be linked partly to the trend to later childbirth. Lung cancer is set to drop sharply in men from 13 per cent to 8.4 per cent, but to double in women, from 4.4 per cent to 9 per cent, reflecting the later stage at which women took up smoking. Stomach cancer is expected to continue its decline in both sexes but bowel cancer will remain unchanged.
Professor Karol Sikora, clinical director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said the forecasts were too gloomy. "They do not allow for advances based on genetic risk profiling which will mean we can identify those most at risk and target screening and prevention at them. That will be our most powerful weapon."Reuse content