While Europeans only make up one-tenth of the global population, about 25 per cent of all annual cancer cases occur in Europe. According to EU data, half of the population will have to deal with cancer at some point in their lives; the cumulative risk for developing any type of cancer is 49.3 per cent.
But a new report by the American Cancer Society brings hope: the rate of people dying from cancer has steadily declined over the past three decades, accounting for about 3.8 million prevented deaths.
In Europe, there has also been a continuous increase in 5-year survival rates for the most common cancer types in all countries.
Experts attribute the progress to several factors, including effective prevention and screening programmes, lower smoking rates, as well as advances in diagnostics and surgical techniques.
HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccines, for example, are said to have largely contributed to the reduction of cancer deaths in the US, says the American report.
Among women in their early 20s, there was a 65 per cent drop registered in cervical cancer rates between 2012 and 2019.
They say it coincides with the first vaccine against the two strains of HPV that cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers (HPV-16 and HPV-18), for which the first wave of vaccinated adolescents is now in their 20s.
The evolution of cancer mortality rates
During most of the 20th century, there was a rapid growth of lung cancer death rates as a consequence of smoking, particularly for men. This, in turn, led to considerable growth in global cancer death rates, says the US report.
However, reductions in tobacco consumption, as well as improvements in early detection and treatment for some cancers, have brought a continuous decline in cancer death rates since they peaked in the North American country in 1991.
The five-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined went up from 49 per cent in the mid-1970s to 68 per cent during 2012-18. Approximately 3.8 million cancer deaths have been averted.
Across the EU, progress has also been overwhelmingly positive. Around 90.3 per cent of regions recorded a decrease in their standardised death rate from cancer between 2011 and 2019.
For lung cancer, the death rate fell by 84.9 per cent in all EU member states, while a similar reduction was registered for colorectal cancer, which decreased by 82.8 per cent.
The two most common causes of cancer for both men and women recorded a considerable improvement.
Around three-quarters (74.8 per cent), of all countries in the EU recorded a decline in death rates from prostate cancer among men, while two-thirds (66.4 per cent) recorded a decline in death rates from breast cancer among women.
Some parts of Europe, however, are more heavily affected by cancer. Breast cancer, for example, appears much more frequently in some places than others. Belgium has 194 breast cancer cases per 100,000 inhabitants, while Bulgaria has 100.
Mortality rates, however, are more accurate than the incidence in measuring progress, as the latter can be affected by biases in detection and treatment access, warn experts.
Poland, for instance, has an estimated breast cancer incidence of 119.1 per 100,000 people (compared with an EU average of 142.0), yet it has a mortality rate of 41.8, almost eight points above the EU average (34.1).
Men are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer
According to ACS Journals, the lifetime probability of being diagnosed with invasive cancer in the US is slightly higher for men (40.9 per cent) than for women (39.1 per cent).
The higher risk in men for most cancer types is thought “to largely reflect greater exposure to carcinogenic environmental and behavioural factors, such as smoking,” they say.
In the EU, cancer also accounts for a higher share (28.3 per cent) of deaths among men than among women (21.8 per cent).
The most common cause of death from the disease among men and women is the same in the United States and the EU.
For men, the most common types are prostate, lung and bronchus cancer; and in the case of women, breast, lung and bronchus cancer.
The type of cancer that takes more lives in the EU are lung cancer, with a mortality rate of 54.2 per cent, prostate cancer (36.3 per cent) and breast cancer (34.1) per cent.
Prevention is always better than the cure
Despite the ravaging figures, it is estimated that almost 40 per cent of cancers are preventable.
Colorectal cancer – the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Europe – can, for example, be greatly reduced by adopting healthy habits such as a healthy diet and a regular exercise routine.
According to the international agency for Research on Cancer, 757,677 cancer cases are also attributable to tobacco in the EU and could be prevented.
Cancer mortality rates are expected to continue downhill
EU authorities say the growing use of techniques, such as immunotherapies which leverage the power of the immune system to fight cancer, our understanding of the role of genetics and gender differences in cancer, as well as new computer-based analytical tools, will continue to improve the numbers of the leading cause of death worldwide.
There are already a number of promising developments in the field of cancer research.
On January 5, the UK government announced a partnership with German pharmaceutical giant BioNTech, which – along with Pfizer – manufactured the revolutionary mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
The partnership will test potential vaccines for cancer and other diseases.
The trial will see cancer patients in England get early access to involving personalized mRNA therapies, including cancer vaccines, which aim to spur the immune system to attack harmful cells.