Intended for healthcare professionals


Half of the UK population can expect a diagnosis of cancer

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 04 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h614
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. 1London

Half of people in the United Kingdom will get a diagnosis of cancer at some point in their lifetime, say forecasts from Cancer Research UK published in the British Journal of Cancer on Wednesday 4 February.1

A person’s lifetime risk is typically calculated using current risks at different ages, but this relies on age specific cancer rates and all cause mortality to remain stable over a long time. Instead, for their projections, researchers based at Queen Mary University of London estimated the probability of receiving a diagnosis of cancer (excluding non-melanoma skin cancers) among people born from 1930 to 1960 by estimating the future risks for those people born in each year at specific ages and then collating them.

They found that the lifetime risk of cancer increased from 38.5% among men born in 1930 to 53.5% among those born in 1960. In women, the lifetime risk of cancer was 36.7% among those born in 1930 and 47.5% among those born in 1960. Overall, the lifetime risk of cancer is now more than 50% in people born since 1960.

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK chief executive, said that the old method of estimating lifetime risk had established that more than a third of people would receive a diagnosis of cancer at some stage.

“We’ve known for a long time that that proportion has been going up,” he told a press conference. “We had previously estimated that we would get to this ‘one in two’ point but thought that we would get to it a little bit later. What these more recent and more accurate estimates have shown us is that we have been underestimating the risk a little bit and we are already at the point where half of us will get cancer at some point in our lifetimes, and that’s true for people born since 1960.”

Peter Sasieni, the lead researcher and professor of biostatistics and cancer epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London, said that higher life expectancy was responsible for around two thirds of the increase in lifetime risk of cancer and that increasing rates of cancer, due primarily to lifestyle factors, accounted for the remaining third.

“Cancer is primarily a disease of old age, with more than 60% of all cases diagnosed in people aged over 65. If people live long enough then most will get cancer at some point. But there’s a lot we can do to make it less likely—like giving up smoking, being more active, drinking less alcohol, and maintaining a healthy weight,” said Sasieni.

Kumar said that the figures underlined the need for preventive strategies, continued research into new treatments, and ensuring that NHS cancer services are geared up for rising demand in the years ahead. Kumar chairs an independent task force that has been charged by NHS England with developing a five year strategy for cancer services to achieve these goals.

“The strategy that we will be producing in the summer will look at how we can prevent more cancers in the future, how we can diagnose them earlier, and how we can deliver better care and aftercare for patients and hopefully improve survival rates,” he said.

Cancer Research UK has set a target of increasing the 10 year survival rate with cancer from 50% to 75% by 2014.2 To deliver this involves ensuring that NHS cancer services and public health in the UK are among the best in the world, Kumar said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h614


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