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The BBC's Neil Bennett
"Cancer is responsible for a quarter of all deaths in the UK"
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Gordon McVie of the Cancer Research Campaign
" A snapshot of social history"
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Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Wartime peaks of 'sexual' cancer
graph - cervical cancer rates
Experts examining more than a century's records of cervical cancer have found fresh evidence of links to sexual infection.

They found distinct peaks in the number of women developing the disease during the first and second world wars.

It also peaked, though to a lesser degree, in the 1960s, coinciding with the increased sexual freedoms associated with the contraceptive pill - and fell as condom use soared because of fears over Aids.

The pattern of cervical cancer cases, and of other common cancers such as breast and lung in England and Wales is charted in a new Cancer Research Campaign book.

The 20th century was a tremendous lifestyle mistake

Professor Anthony Swerdlow,
Institute of Cancer Research
Professor Anthony Swerdlow, one of the book's authors, said: "The 20th century was a tremendous lifestyle mistake."

But he said there were "many encouraging signs" from the search for the causes of cancer and the battle to improve treatments.

More than 150,000 a year in the UK die from cancer.

It is believed that infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) - which can be sexually transmitted - plays some role in the development of cervical cancer, a belief strengthened by peaks in the disease at times when sexual freedoms were more pronounced.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the CRC told the BBC's Today programme: "What's quite interesting is that more women are probably practising protected sex more than we believed because there has not been an epidemic level of cervical cancer since the pill was prescribed, nor of breast cancer."

Cancer is now responsible for a quarter of all deaths, due to people living longer, and the increase in the number of smokers,

The book, Cancer Incidence and Mortality in England and Wales: Trends and Risk Factors, also charts the progress of lung cancer during the 20th century, influenced by the numbers addicted to cigarettes.

Male deaths in lung cancer peaked in men in the 1970s before falling back.

Women took up the habit later, and deaths in the female population are only now beginning to go down.

The book also charts the rise in the number of skin cancer cases, as increasing numbers of people worshipped the sun.

But the survey does not point out a link between brain cancer and mobile phones.

And it does not find a link between electricity use and childhood leukaemia.


Professor Gordon McVie said the authors of the book had "given a snapshot of social history".

"They've shown that cancer has been around for a hundred years - a lot of people don't believe that.

"They've shown that breast cancer has continued on an upward trend in incidence and mortality until 15 years ago."

Professor McVie said it was likely that the incidence has flattened because of environmental changes, most likely to be dietary.

But he said rates had not fallen in obese women, and that the incidence of obesity was going up.

He added: "The improvement in mortality in breast cancer is steady and it's very very good news for breast cancer sufferers.

"That really is all to do with treatment, with the effects of breast cancer screening expected to kick in around now."

He added that they had shown negative links too.

"That there hasn't been an outbreak of brain cancer associated with mobile phones, that there hasn't been a massive increase of thyroid cancer with Chernobyl - and that sun spots, famed as causing melanoma have had less impact than taking your top of and going to the Costa del Sol for your holiday."

He said there was still a battle to be won: "We haven't impacted in a major way on overall mortality because the disease has been increasing and we've been fighting to deal with increase. However several cancers are flattening out."

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