Half of UK will get cancer, scientists say

A new study from Cancer Research finds our odds for cancer have increased to one in two. But is this an alarming trend, or simply a side effect of our increasingly long lives?

Cancer is the UK’s biggest killer, responsible for over 160,000 deaths in 2012 alone. But yesterday this feared disease got scarier still, with the news that over half of the UK’s population will one day suffer at its hands.

Cancer Research UK had previously estimated that one in three British residents would get cancer in their lifetime. But now it has updated its prediction to take into account new methodology and lifestyle change.

The increasing prevalence of cancer is partly down to unhealthy modern habits, such as using sunbeds and eating large quantities of red meat. Rising rates of obesity are also a threat.

But there is also a less alarming reason for the spread of cancer: it is a disease that disproportionately affects old people, and we are living longer than ever before. So the rise of cancer is partly a symptom of our success in fighting other fatal conditions.

That is not the only positive development. While you are now more likely to get cancer, you also have more chance of surviving it: around half of patients live for longer than a decade after diagnosis. Cancer survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years, thanks to improving treatment, earlier detection and better public awareness.

As we slowly get better at fighting cancer, we have also learned more about how to avoid it. More than four in ten cancers diagnosed every year could be prevented by lifestyle changes, and we are more aware than ever of the factors that increase the risk.

Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and avoiding drinking and smoking can lower our lifetime risk from 50% to 30%. Yet even the most virtuous life offers no guarantees against cancer. And while treatments are improving, a ‘cure’ is a very long way off.

A former editor of the British Medical Journal caused enormous controversy recently by saying charities should cease their quest for a cure altogether. We all have to die somehow, he argued and cancer may be the ‘best option’, since it leaves us time come to terms with death. By this logic, cancer research is potentially leaving us to ‘die a much more horrible death’.

Disease and desist

Few would go as far as to say that cancer is a good death. But many agree that it is fruitless to pursue a cure endlessly. We’ll never be free from death and disease, after all — and if cancer doesn’t get us then something else will. We should focus on improving quality of life rather than prolonging it.

Others dismiss this as mere fatalism. As other diseases become less threatening, the risk of cancer grows, with all the misery and devastation it brings. Instead of giving in, we must redouble our commitment to cancer research.

You Decide

  1. Was the British Medical Journal editor right to call for an end to cancer research?
  2. Will every disease one day be cured?


  1. Write a letter from the point of view of a Cancer Research UK employee to the former editor of the British Medical Journal. Explain why you disagree with his comments.
  2. Is it more important to invest money in curing diseases, or caring for those suffering with them? In pairs, each pick a side to debate.

Some People Say...

“Life is only precious because it ends.”

Rick Riordan

What do you think?

Q & A

Will we ever find a cure for cancer?
Cancer is not really one single disease, but many, each of them with a unique set of characteristics. Cancer Research UK’s chief executive says there will ‘never be one single magic bullet’ to cure all cancers. Many are hopeful, however, that we will eventually find a cure — or cures, and survival rates are heading in a promising direction.
What will an ageing population mean for future generations?
According to official predictions, there will be 19 million over-65s in Britain by 2050. The main issues we face with a population with increasing life expectancy are the pressure on the NHS and social services, and a shrinking workforce creating gaps in the job market.

Word Watch

Red meat
Eating a lot of red and processed meat can increase risk of bowel cancer. The NHS recommends eating no more than 70 grams (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day.
Survival rates
Survival rates vary widely depending on the type of cancer. Only 5% of lung cancer patients recover, for instance, compared to more than four in five people with breast cancer.
Earlier detection
Sometimes people ignore symptoms because they dislike going to the doctor. But when it comes to cancer, acting quickly on anything abnormal can help chances of survival. Even for cancers with poorer average survival rates, the earlier it is diagnosed the better the prognosis.
Healthy weight
Different people have different natural weights, and it’s not always possible to tell from the way someone looks whether they are in good shape. The health of your weight can be roughly determined using the BMI healthy weight calculator on the NHS website. This also takes into consideration your age and height.
British Medical Journal
The BMJ is Britain’s oldest and most respected journal on healthcare.


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