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Rise in cancer rates? Or something else behind the numbers?

Several newspapers in the UK reported this week that cancer rates have risen over the past two decades. That set into motion an analysis by the excellent “Behind the Headlines” service offered by the NHS Choices website. They found this in newspapers:

“Cancer rates in the middle-aged “have jumped by almost a fifth in a generation”, according to The Daily Telegraph, which says that the increase “is thought to be mainly due to better detection of cancers rather than people adopting more unhealthy lifestyles”. The Sun takes the alternate view, saying that doctors are “blaming the rise on obesity and home boozing”. The Daily Mail similarly suggests that lifestyle changes are to blame.”

You don’t have to live in the UK to learn from their analysis.

They wrote:

“One factor contributing to these increases is likely to be higher rates of detection due to the NHS breast cancer screening programme and the PSA test for prostate cancer. The raw data behind these stats also needs to be placed into context: these particular cancer diagnosis rates are drawn from the datasets for England from the Office of National Statistics and similar datasets from registries in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The ONS urges caution when interpreting its data, particularly when looking at trends across time, or differences across regions.

For example, since 1993 it has been mandatory for NHS staff to report information on cancer diagnoses to cancer registries. Prior to this, the information may be less complete, and therefore not necessarily reflective of the true rate of cancer. Even for more recent years, cancer registry data may not be complete.”

They also note that “This is part of a new national campaign being launched today by Cancer Research UK, aimed at highlighting the importance of publicly funded research.”

Beware of stats suggesting progress when used to defend funding – my caveat, not theirs.

I recently met in London with the people at who write the “Behind the Headlines” analyses – two each day based on items in the news. It’s a different approach than we take with, but a complementary one. Recent entries covered topics such as:

• Progress made in growing adult stem cells in lab

• Gene implicated in good and alcohol cravings

• Do diesel fumes raise heart risk?

And the always popular:

• Six to eight glasses of water ‘still best’

It’s a great resource. You may want to bookmark their site.

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Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.


July 19, 2011 at 11:16 am

Cancer statistics are notoriously slippery and easily manipulated to fit a person’s point of view.
Interesting discussions on this can be found in:
H. Gilbert Welch’s book Should I be Tested for Cancer?
Robert Proctor’s book The Cancer Wars
Samuel Epstein’s The Politics of Cancer