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Thursday, 9 November, 2000, 18:08 GMT
Cancer: Number one killer
Chemotherapy drug
Cancer drugs can treat many forms of the disease
Cancer remains the main cause of death in both men and women, according to the Department of Health.

Between 1950 and 1999, deaths due to cancer rose from 15% to 27% in men and from 16% to 23% in women - overtaking heart disease, stroke and infectious diseases as the other major killers in England and Wales.

Cancer currently kills 135,000 people a year, compared to 110,000 deaths from heart disease.

People are simply living longer, and therefore more people will die of cancer as a result

Dr Kate Law, Cancer Research Campaign
While deaths from heart disease, stroke and infectious diseases have fallen dramatically in recent years, rates for cancer have changed very little even though advances in treatment mean that many more people are now more likely to survive the disease.

The latest figures on cancer trends also show that people living in more deprived areas are at greater risk of developing and dying from ten of the major cancers.

If the number of cases and deaths from cancer were as low in all socio-economic groups as the most affluent, there would be 36,000 fewer cases and 26,000 fewer deaths from cancer every year.

Ageing population

Dr Kate Law, head of research for the Cancer Research Campaign, said a major factor behind the increasing number of deaths from cancer was the fact that the people were now living longer.

Dr Law told BBC News Online: "Most of the cancers that contribute to the mortality figures are cancers that affect elderly people.

"People are simply living longer, and therefore more people will die of cancer as a result."

Dr Law said there had been a huge increase in the numbers of women dying from lung cancer in recent years.

Lung cancer is now the biggest cause of cancer death among women - even though deaths from the previous biggest killer, breast cancer had also risen.

This was because women only started to smoke in significant numbers during the 1960s, and the effects of that take several decades to emerge fully.

Deaths from breast cancer are thought to be linked in part to the modern trend to delay motherhood and to have less children. Women also start to menstruate earlier and are going through the menopause later.

All of these factors increase the impact of the sexual hormones such as oestrogen, which is known to be linked to breast cancer.


Dr Law said the best way to tackle cancer deaths was to educate the public about the risk of the disease.

Some 60% of all cancers in the UK are preventable by taking simple steps such as eating a balanced diet, stopping smoking and avoiding exposure to the sun.

Dr Law said: "More people are dying of cancer in the UK because they are less well educated about the disease, and because they tend to present to their GP at a later stage when the cancer is more advanced and more difficult to treat."

While the situation had begun to improve among women, men were still failing to seek medical advice soon enough.

Another factor was the poor access that people in the UK had to top quality drugs, she said.

Yvette Cooper, Minister for Public Health, said: "Cancer is now the biggest killer in this country.

"These new figures show how important it is that we have drawn up, for the first time, a national cancer plan, providing a comprehensive strategy for tackling this growing disease and reinforces our commitment to improving cancer services."

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See also:

01 Jun 00 | Health
Cancer guru defends UK record
25 May 00 | Health
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04 May 00 | Health
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