WHO report predicts 60 percent jump in cancer cases in the next 20 years

Report calls for preventive measures and vaccines to stem the upsurge in new cases
Cancerous colon cells
Developing countries are beginning to see higher rates of a number of different types of cancer, including colon, according to a new report. In this image, healthy colon cells on the left are contrasted with cancer cells (light purple) on the lower right. In the upper right are more cancer cells producing large amounts of mucin. Fred Hutch file

New cancer cases are predicted to jump by almost 60 percent worldwide over the next two decades, an “alarming rise” that can’t be addressed by treatment alone, according to a major report by the World Health Organization released Monday on the eve of World Cancer Day.

Noting that rocketing treatment costs have become a burden to even the richest economies and are out of reach for poor countries, the report called for preventive measures and vaccines to stem a projected 22 million new cancer cases a year, up from 14 million in 2012.

 “Despite exciting advances, this report shows that we cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem,” said Dr. Christopher Wild, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer—WHO’s cancer arm—in a statement. “More commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed in order to complement improved treatments and address the alarming rise in cancer burden globally.”

Much of the projected increase will occur in developing countries. Today, the report said, more than 60 percent of the world’s total cancer cases occur in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America; these regions also account for about 70 percent of the world’s cancer deaths. The disproportionate impact is partly a consequence of growing and aging populations and is worsened by the lack of early detection and access to treatment.

In addition, developing countries already suffering from higher rates of infection-related cancers (including those of the cervix, liver and stomach) are beginning to see more cases of lung, large bowel and breast cancers associated with high tobacco and alcohol use, processed foods, lack of exercise and other lifestyle factors more commonly seen in affluent countries.

"This is a very important report, as it highlights the huge additional burden of illness that will be confronting society over the next 20 years,” said Dr. Thomas L. Vaughan of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Cancer Epidemiology Program and an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington. “At the same time, many of the anticipated cancers can be prevented by such things as reducing smoking or making existing vaccines available at low cost, while others are amenable to early detection and treatment. This should give some reason for optimism if sufficient resources can be focused on the problem.”

Vaccination against hepatitis B virus and human papillomavirus can markedly reduce liver and cervical cancers. And early screenings, along with public health campaigns to halt smoking and promote physical activity and other healthy lifestyles, are crucial for avoiding lung, large bowel, and breast cancers.  A study involving researchers from Fred Hutch found that an estimated 8 million lives have been saved in the U.S. as a result of anti-smoking measures launched 50 years ago.

In 2012, the most common cancers diagnosed globally were lung (1.8 million cases, 13 percent of the total), breast (1.7 million, 11.9 percent) and large bowel (1.4 million, 9.7 percent). The most common causes of cancer death were lung (1.6 million, 19.4 percent of the total), liver (0.8 million, 9.1 percent), and stomach (0.7 million, 8.8 percent).

The 630-page World Cancer Report 2014 is the third in a series and is considered an authoritative source of global information on cancer. More than 250 scientists from more than 40 countries contributed. The first volume of the series was published in 2003 and the second in 2008.

Follow Mary Engel on Twitter @Engel140.

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