I was as shocked as anyone when I saw the headlines this week from outlets such as the BBC predicting a cancer “tidal wave” over the next few decades. The number of cases globally is expected to dramatically increase to 24 million a year by 2035, up from about 14 million currently, with the developing world being especially hard hit.
This is going to cause problems, the World Health Organization says, because of the high cost of treating cancer. Prevention will therefore be key, which is why government health departments should start tackling issues such as smoking, alcohol intake and obesity.
This is good advice, to be sure, but the headlines tell only the most sensational part of the story – and only the bad part of it. The reality is that the bump in cancer rates is actually a good news story, because it means more people – especially in the developing world – are going to live to get it.
Infant mortality is plummeting in many developing nations. In some African countries, it’s falling by as much as eight per cent a year. The continent overall is experiencing a faster decline than anywhere, ever. Like the largely untold news about decreasing poverty in the developing world, this is “a tremendous success story that has only barely been recognized,” according to the World Bank.
On the other side, life expectancy is also continuing to grow. About 40 per cent of the girls born in Britain in 2013, for example, are expected to live to 100 (the percentage of boys is just behind that). By 2060, that proportion will increase to 60 per cent. “These UK trends are mirrored around the world,” wrote John Appleby, chief economist with London’s King’s Fund, in the British Medical Journal. “Since 1970, there have been significant increases in life expectancy in virtually all countries.”
Given that cancer is something people tend to get later in life, an upcoming rise in its incidence should come as no surprise to anyone.
The even better news is that scientists are making giant leaps in treating cancer. Survival times for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast and colon cancers have improved dramatically over the past forty years, to the point where scientists are saying they are at “an amazing watershed” in understanding the disease. There’s still much more work to do with other types of cancer, but the overall trajectory is pointing in the right direction.
“Health expected to follow predictable pattern” isn’t exactly a sexy headline, but it would be the more correct one. Or perhaps even “cancer tidal wave to be deflected by steady improvements in treatments.” That probably won’t do much for anyone’s Google juice, though.