Cancer rates continue to rise internationally

The rate of cancer cases and deaths has substantially increased globally since 1990, especially in people aged 40 to 49 years – in spite of improved treatments, according to a major analysis published today.

The most common forms are early onset breast, tracheal, bronchus and lung, stomach and colorectal cancers.

Dr Xue Li of the University of Edinburgh, UK, and colleagues set out to explore the global burden of 29 early onset cancers worldwide. They used figures from the Global Burden of Disease 2019 study.

Overall, they found that between 1990 and 2019 the global incidence of early onset cancer cases increased by 79%, and the number of early onset cancer deaths by 28%.

There were 3.26 million new cancer diagnoses in 2019 among the under 50s, an increase of 79% compared with 1990.

Full details appear in BMJ Oncology today. The authors report: “Globally, the incidence rates of early onset nasopharyngeal and prostate cancer showed the fastest increasing trend, whereas early onset liver cancer showed the sharpest decrease.”

In terms of disability adjusted life years – years lost due to ill-health – early onset colorectal cancers showed the highest burden in men and women.

The team estimate that the global number of incidence and deaths of early onset cancer will rise by 31% and 21% in 2030.

“Encouraging a healthy lifestyle could reduce early onset cancer disease burden,” they state.

Commenting on the findings in an editorial, Dr Ashleigh Hamilton of Queen’s University Belfast, UK, points out that “the landscape of cancer incidence is changing”. Increasing age remains a risk factor, but cases in under-50s are rising.

“It is important to educate both the public and health care professionals regarding the possibility of certain cancers in younger adults to allow earlier diagnosis, which in turn improves outcomes,” he adds.

Zhao, J. et al. Global trends in incidence, death, burden and risk factors of early-onset cancer from 1990 to 2019. BMJ Oncology 6 September 2023; doi: 10.1136/bmjonc-2023-000049


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