WHO: Cancer Cases Will Soar

Sign outside World Health Organization headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland
With current smoking trends and the spread of unhealthy lifestyles, the number of new cancer cases is expected to grow worldwide by 50 percent over the next 20 years, according to a report published Thursday by the World Health Organization.

The World Cancer Report, which aims to provide a scientific basis for government efforts to tackle the disease, provides the first comprehensive global examination of cancer covering the current understanding of its causes, prevention and treatment.

The U.N. health agency said it hopes the report will highlight for developing countries the dangers they face by adopting unhealthy Western habits that promote cancer.

Worldwide, about 10 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year and 6 million people die from it. There are currently about 22 million cancer patients in the world. The report projects that the annual number of diagnoses will reach 15 million by 2020

"Each time we've identified a cause of cancer, we've provided an opportunity for prevention ... Without having the whole picture in front of you it was easy to get sidetracked," said one of the report's editors, Australian cancer specialist Bernard Stewart.

"This book has the advantage of putting between two relatively slim covers all of the facts that otherwise amount to a stack of textbooks about 5 feet tall that are relatively dull and difficult to understand.

"The World Cancer Report addresses issues in a way that allows any reader to put in context the latest whizz-bang gene, the latest drug or the latest scare, but the overall message is that we can prevent a third of cancers, we can cure a third of cancers, and for the remainder we can certainly do something for the quality of life if pain management is adequate," said Stewart, director of cancer services for the Southeastern Sydney area heath service.

Although one-third of cancers worldwide are theoretically preventable, that doesn't mean that the coming increase could realistically be slashed by that amount, said WHO's cancer chief, Dr. Paul Kleihues.

"I think what we can do is slow down the increase. Anything more is not realistic," said Kleihues, director of WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Rich nations have more cancer than poor ones, mostly because of tumors tied to smoking and the unhealthy Western lifestyle of bad diets, drinking and insufficient exercise.

"If we want to go back to a lifestyle associated with a low incidence of cancer, small changes to our lifestyles would not be sufficient. We would really have to go down to a very restricted diet, no overfeeding, starting in childhood. I don't think that's realistic expectation," Kleihues said.

From one angle, the task of stemming the impending rise in cancer is easier in poor countries, Kleihues said, because 23 percent of tumors there are due to infections that can be prevented now or soon.

"We already have a first class vaccination against hepatitis B virus and there is no question that soon the rates of hepatitis B-induced liver cancer will come down in many countries," he said.

Eradication of the helicobacter pylori bug, which causes stomach cancer, would also help, as would the advent of a vaccine against the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer.

However, health experts are becoming increasingly worried about poor countries gradually adopting unhealthy Western habits.

In rich nations, half of cancer patients die, but in the developing world, where early detection and treatment is not so good, 80 percent die.

"It's quite disturbing. Many of them are taking up smoking and striving to get the Western lifestyle. That's very hard to stop. They will unfortunately miss this unique chance of maintaining a low cancer burden," Kleihues said.

The World Health Organization plans to update the 350-page cancer report every few years.