Cancer Will Affect One in Two People — New Estimate

Liam Davenport

February 05, 2015

More than half of all people born in 1960 will develop cancer at some point in their lives, according to new research.

"This new estimate replaces the previous figure, calculated using a different method, which predicted that more than one in three people would develop cancer at some point in their lives," notes a press release from Cancer Research UK, which supported the study and publicized the findings. "The increase in lifetime risk is primarily because more people are surviving into old age, when cancer is more common," it adds.

The study was published online February 3 in the British Journal of Cancer.

For people born in 1960, the lifetime risk of developing cancer is 53.5% for men and 47.5% for women, according to the calculations of Peter Sasieni, PhD, from the Centre for Cancer Prevention at Queen Mary University of London, United Kingdom, and colleagues.

Compared with people born in 1930, that is an increase of 15% for men and 11% for women.

Most of the increase was seen in the older age groups. The findings show that more than half of the cancers that make up this lifetime risk are diagnosed in people older than 70 years.

In fact, the findings reinforce the association between cancer risk and the aging population, the researchers say.

"Cancer is primarily a disease of old age, with more than 60% of all cases diagnosed in people aged over 65," Dr Sasieni said in a statement.

"If people live long enough, then most will get cancer at some point. But there's a lot we can do to make it less likely — like giving up smoking, being more active, drinking less alcohol, and maintaining a healthy weight," he added.

"If we want to reduce the risk of developing the disease, we must redouble our efforts and take action now to better prevent the disease for future generations," Dr Sasieni said.

Harpal Kumar, MBA, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, called for better planning of services and adequate funding for the National Health Service.

"We need a concerted approach and a broader sense of how we can save lives and money by preventing more cancers," he said. "Growing older is the biggest risk factor for most cancers, and that's something we can't avoid."

"More than four in 10 cancers diagnosed each year in the United Kingdom could be prevented by changes in lifestyle; that's something we can all aim for personally so that we can stack the odds in our favor," he added.

Put Into Context: We Are All Living Longer

"We must set these figures in context of the fact that people are living longer because of better healthcare and medical advances," said Dame Sally C. Davies, MD, chief medical officer for England, in a release.

"Cancer survival rates have improved to record levels in this country and we are working to raise awareness of cancer symptoms so it can be diagnosed earlier, improving cancer outcomes," she explained.

However, the improved cancer survival rates — while a great success story — create another problem for already strained healthcare resources.

A recent report issued by Macmillan Cancer Support notes that 2.5 million people in the United Kingdom will be living with cancer in 2015. As reported by Medscape Medical News, this represents an increase of more than half a million people over the past 5 years.

American researchers recently found that cancer survivors have a series of unmet needs that persist up to 10 years after diagnosis. These include physical, financial, educational, and personal control issues, and each patient experiences an average of almost three unmet needs.

New Estimates of Risk

In their study, Dr Sasieni and colleagues examined all-cause mortality rates per 100,000 person-years from the Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom. Specifically, they looked at historic data for 1951 to 2012 and projected data for 2013 to 2060 and applied mortality rates from 1951 to previous years (1930 to 1950).

In addition, Cancer Research UK provided national population estimates for all cancers except nonmelanoma skin cancer.

To calculate lifetime risk for people born in a given year, the team used a flexible age-period-cohort model to project forward all cancers and all cancer deaths, and an age-specific extrapolation to project backward.

In men, the estimated lifetime risk of developing cancer increased from 38.5% for those born in 1930 to 53.5% for those born in 1960. In women, the risk increased from 36.7% for those born in 1930 to 47.5% for those born in 1960.

The likelihood of a cancer diagnosis increases with age. In fact, estimates show a rapid increase in cumulative risk after the age of 65 years, with more than half the lifetime risk in people born in 1960 resulting from cancers diagnosed after 70 years.

Table. Cumulative Cancer Risk for People Born in 1960

Age Group, Years Men, % Women, %
0–64 12.9 15.1
0–74 29.6 26.4
0–84 49.8 39.9


The cumulative risk for cancer up to 84 years changed little over the study period. In men, the risk increased from 46.6% for those born in 1930 to 49.8% for those born in 1960. In women, it increased from 36.1% for those born in 1930 to 39.9% for those born in 1960.

These findings support the notion that the majority of the overall increased risk of developing cancer is related to increasing longevity, Dr Sasieni and colleagues report.

"The results of this analysis should enhance public health messages and improve resource planning for both commissioners and providers of healthcare in the United Kingdom," they conclude.

This work was supported by Cancer Research UK grants. Dr Sasieni has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Br J Cancer. Published online February 3, 2015. Abstract


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