Cancer cases to rise steeply by 2050: What are the causes?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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WHO warns that cancer incidence rates are on the rise globally. Image credit: Branden Harvey Stories/Stocksy.
  • While experts have made significant advances in treating cancer, cancer continues to remain a global health concern.
  • The latest report from the World Health Organization predicts that there will be over 35 million new cases of cancer in 2050, a significant rise from the approximate 20 million cancer cases that occurred in 2022.
  • Reports from the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that lung, breast, and colorectal cancers are the most common types worldwide.
  • The data point to several factors contributing to cancer cases and allows for exploring mitigation and prevention strategies.

Cancer continues to be a global burden, making it critical to collect data in this area regularly. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO).

It gathers data on the burden of cancer all over the world. This group just released the latest fact sheets and information on the global burden of cancer in 2022.

WHO also released a statement highlighting some of the key findings.

The burden of cancer is related to several factors. The statement from WHO suggests that people in countries with a lower human development index may receive diagnoses later and have a lower chance of access to quality treatment. This can significantly increase the risk of poor cancer health outcomes.

Another struggle is people’s ability to get governmental assistance for cancer-related services. In this statement, the WHO referenced survey data from 115 countries on components of their universal health coverage.

This survey data found that only 39% of these countries included basic cancer management as part of health benefit packages for their citizens.

Health benefit packages also varied considerably between countries. For example, high-income countries were more likely to have lung cancer-related services, radiation services, and stem-cell transplantation as part of their health benefit packages than low-income countries were.

Environmental factors and lifestyle choices also contribute to cancer’s impact. For example, the WHO statement suggests that the increase in lung cancer cases is related to the continued use of tobacco in Asia. They also note that the data reflects increases in the aging population and population growth.

Alcohol use, tobacco use, and obesity continue to contribute to cancer rate increases overall. Exposure to air pollution is also a likely contributing factor.

Surgical oncologist Dr. Anton Bilchik, who is chief of medicine and Director of the Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Program at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA, speculated about a few other factors that may be contributing to cancer rate increases.

“There are major disparities in Healthcare and the disproportionate increase in cancer cases among poorer countries is striking. The rise is related to poor nutrition, smoking, lack of public awareness and limited access to screening. Furthermore, there is a higher mortality once diagnosed for similar reasons — lack of access to modern surgical techniques and effective systemic therapies,” he told us.

Private practice oncologist and current president of Maryland Oncology Hematology, Dr. George A. Sotos, offered further potential contributing factors:

“A report released by the WHO on February 4, documented a significant increase in global cancer incidence. A study in the British Medical Journal [BMJ Oncology] in September 2023 described a similar significant increase in cancer in people less than 50 years old. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for this rise. Some of the increase can be attributed to increased screening efforts and increased reporting, and some to a growing and aging population, but the authors of both studies also propose that dietary factors, including obesity and alcohol consumption, and environmental factors such as pollution and especially tobacco use, were major contributors.”

While the eradication of cancer is unrealistic, there is the possibility for mitigation and prevention. Action can take place at many levels to improve access to screening and treatment.

Various governments and medical organizations can help by raising awareness and increasing understanding of cancer risk. The statement from WHO suggests that countries could reexamine prioritizing cancer in health benefits packages.

People can also take steps at the individual level to cut down on personal risk factors. For example, people can quit smoking to help decrease their risk for several cancer types.

They can also seek to follow a balanced diet, maintain a Healthy weight, and limit alcohol use. They can further discuss their doctor’s recommendations for cancer screening and follow-up.

Dr. Bilchik noted that:

“Many cancers are completely preventable. This can only be accomplished with a significant investment in cancer prevention education and better access to cancer screening. Individuals should recognize the importance of a healthy lifestyle, exercise, the avoidance of smoking, a healthy diet as ways of preventing cancer.”

Dr. Shana O. Ntiri, associate professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine, executive director of the Mini Medical School at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Medical Director of the Baltimore City Cancer Program, and senior medical advisor in the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center, commented with her thoughts on prevention to Medical News Today.

“The report names lung, breast, and colon as the three major cancer types in 115 countries including the [United States,” she told us. “These are three cancers for which we know prevention-focused behavioral changes and screening can significantly decrease cancer morbidity and mortality.”

“Stopping tobacco use, maintaining a healthy weight, eating nutritious meals and being active are key ways that people can reduce their risk of getting cancer. It’s also important to keep up with regular screenings, such as mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopies for colorectal cancer and PSA testing for prostate cancer,” Dr. O Ntiri advised.

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