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There has been a revolution in cancer treatment, its ongoing, and its great news.

It is sometimes hard to appreciate that the battle being waged against cancer is slowly, but surely being won.

Thursday, February 17th 2022, 9:37AM

by Russell Hutchinson

The main challenge with this narrative is that, seemingly, cancer is so much more common.

If you feel instinctively that there is more and more cancer about, then you are right. But the nature of cancer is that the longer you live, you are more likely to get it. 

The good folks at Our World in Data do magnificent analytical work, make great visualizations of it all, and then give it all away in a creative commons license.

It is because of them that we can share the graph below – showing New Zealand data – to illustrate the gains being made against cancer.

Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie provide a great digest of data on cancer (link at the end of the article).

So, the raw number of cancer deaths is rising steadily, the rate of cancer deaths is also rising, but on an age standardized basis, there are about 20% fewer people dying of cancer than there were before. Or, put another way, while you are highly likely to die of cancer, you are about 20% less likely to die of it young. 

What’s behind this picture is a combination of factors.

I searched for a succinct yet comprehensive way of conveying the contributing factors for change. I feel this covers it very well: 

“So: age-adjusted cancer incidence rates and death rates have been going down since 1990, primarily due to better social policies like discouraging smoking. Five-year-survival rates have been gradually improving since at least 1970, on average by maybe about 10% though this depends on severity. Although some of this is confounded by improved screening, this is unlikely to explain more than about 20-50% of the effect. The remainder is probably a real improvement in treatment. Whether or not this level of gradual improvement is enough to represent “winning” the War on Cancer, it at least demonstrates a non-zero amount of progress.” From Scott Alexander on his detailed article (link also below). 

I rather take a slightly more optimistic view of the ‘battle’ as more gene therapies are curing some patients of very advanced cancers. Those drugs are new and expensive.

They are a new generation of cancer drugs a far cry from the chemo of thirty years back which often, on average, merely extended life by a few very painful months. 

Rounding out the good news is that there are many external factors which increase your risk of cancer, some of which are controllable, albeit only with the exertion of a considerable amount of will-power, or the taking of some difficult choices: such as to limit alcohol, change diet, exercise, and avoid air pollution and smoking, of course.

Tags: Russell Hutchinson

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