If there exists a global war on cancer, the globe doesn’t appear to be winning. True, 21st-century medical knowledge and treatment have driven down the incidence of certain cancer types, and made people (in some countries) less likely to die from them. But overall, new cases of cancer are not decreasing but increasing.
The World Health Organization released new estimates in December marking the trend: In 2012, there were 14.1 million new cases of lung, breast, colorectal, cervical, and other cancers, up from 12.7 million just four years earlier. The annual number of deaths from cancer ticked up as well, to 8.2 million in 2012 from 7.6 million in 2008.
“Less developed” nations like India, China, Kenya, Brazil, and their neighbors bear the brunt of the growth statistics. Over half of all new cases, and two-thirds of all deaths, occur there. (Overall cancer rates are lower in poorer nations, but mortality ends up nearly the same.) Lung cancer remains the most common and the most deadly form. Breast cancer, the form most lethal to women, is itself thriving: Incidence shot up 20 percent between 2008 and 2012, and deaths increased 14 percent.
Now to make sense of the numbers. On the bright side, part of this cancer surge may be due to increased life spans, thanks to better sanitation and medical care. If deadly diseases like cholera or tuberculosis are reduced in poor nations, for example, children and adults live longer. Some of them will inevitably develop cancer instead.
But researchers blame the rest of the cancer rise on industrialization (pollution) and the adoption of Western lifestyles in developing countries (unhealthy diets and too little exercise). Smoking rates have increased in Africa and the Middle East. Other factors are in the mix: Human papillomavirus, spread by sexual activity, is behind the deadly scourge of cervical cancer, a disease concentrated in Africa. Breast cancer has increased as more women delay childbearing and have fewer children, both risk factors for the disease. The rise of surgical abortion in the past few decades may also be driving up breast cancer rates. A large body of studies suggests a link between abortion and breast cancer, although mainstream health organizations routinely discredit any connection.
WHO’s cancer forecast isn’t rosy. It predicts by 2025 the total number of new cases per year will have risen 37 percent over the 2012 total, reflecting a world population that is not just growing but aging.
We can do our part to lower the statistics: Don’t smoke, limit alcohol consumption, eat right (and not too much), practice abstinence or fidelity, have kids, and don’t sit around. Now please excuse me. I feel a sudden urge to jog.
A new embryo screening technique one geneticist described as a “game changer” could one day be used to select offspring with ideal physical traits. Reported in Cell in December, scientists from Harvard University in Massachusetts and Peking University in China developed a novel, less invasive method of sequencing the DNA of a lab-fertilized egg without destroying or, they believe, harming the embryo. They say the technique would improve the success of IVF treatments, but it would also be used to screen out tiny babies with genetic defects—and perhaps even undesirable traits. —D.J.D.