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Global Rates of Cancer Could Nearly Double

Cancer deaths are rising around the world, new international data show.  

And as many as 35 million new diagnoses could occur annually by 2050, reflecting a growing and aging population and an increase in the incidence of cancer.  

Who is at Risk? 

Highly developed countries are distinguished by higher rates of some cancers. But they also have higher survival rates

Lifestyle factors may play an important role. People in low-income countries are more likely to smoke cigarettes but less likely to lead a sedentary life or be obese. People in more developed countries also live longer, and age is the most predictive risk factor for cancer. Health inequalities can cause variation within countries as well. 

A scale known as the Human Development Index, classified by the Global Cancer Observatory, shows that rates of diagnosis and death are heavily skewed by access to care and testing. In countries with high standards of living, life expectancy and education, one in 12 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and one in 71 will die of it.  In countries with lower standards of living, life expectancy and education, just one in 27 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, but one in 48 will die of it.   

Poverty in many cases actively contributes to disease burden, as lack of sufficient nutrition, underventilated housing and lack of access to quality health care increase incidence and also severity and duration of illness. 

Even in developed countries, barriers to access that result in late diagnoses and incomplete treatment may skew cancers toward the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.  

The social and financial consequences of a rising rate of cancer worldwide could be significant. WHO investigators found that, among nations offering state-financed health services, fewer than 40% covered basic cancer care. High-income countries were much more likely to cover radiation services and other cancer-fighting treatments, which improves life expectancy and reduces rates of cancer death.  

The Promise of Research  

Speaking of the anticipated increase in cancer cases, Freddie Bray, MD, of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, said, “The impact of this increase will not be felt evenly across countries… Those who have the fewest resources to manage their cancer burdens will bear the brunt of the global cancer burden.” 

Increasing education about the lifestyle factors that contribute to or reduce cancer risk, as well as widespread availability of screening tests and cancer treatments, will be crucial to managing the global increase. Research into prevention and more sophisticated or lower-cost treatments must also be a priority for policymakers.