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'A third will develop disease by 75'

By Claire Regan

The prevalence of cancer is on the rise in Northern Ireland with one-third of the population expected to develop some form of it by age 75 - but the chances of surviving it are better than before.

That's according to a major study launched at Queen's University today which has examined every diagnosis of cancer - and whether it was survived - in the province over an 11-year period.

The report, carried out by the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry (NICR), shows that there have been improvements in cancer survival between 1993 and 2004.

'Survival of Cancer Patients in Northern Ireland: 1993-2004' shows relative survival rates have improved in both men and women diagnosed from 1997-2000, compared with 1993-1996.

And between 1993 and 2004, there was a slight drop of 1.3% in male death rates and 0.8% in female death rates.

Survival rates are seen as one of the best indicators as to the success of diagnostic and treatment methods for cancer. They can be seen as a measure of care including delays in diagnosis, the standard of treatment, its timeliness and the overall quality of care.

Professor Roy Spence, a consultant surgeon and chairman of the Council of NICR, described the report as "a window through which we can measure the impact of change".

According to the in-depth study, during 1993-2003 there was significant improvement in both one and five-year relative survival rate for "all cancers".

Overall, there were 104,788 cases of cancer diagnosed in Northern Ireland in that period - 78,233 being cancers other than non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC), which is rarely fatal.

In 1993, there were 6,320 cases of cancer here and 3,618 deaths, both excluding cases of NMSC. By 2004, those figures had risen to 7,022 and 3,734 respectively.

For men, the most commonly diagnosed cancers were prostrate (12.9%), lung (12.8%) and bowel (11.3%), not including NMSC. Lung cancer was the most common cause of death.

In women, they were breast (20.8%), bowel (10.2%) and lung (12.6%), also excluding NMSC. Breast cancer was the most common cause of death.

Dr Anna Gavin, director of the NICR, said the publication would "play a significant part in the future development of cancer care in Northern Ireland ".

"The report also emphasises the impact of smoking in the changing patterns of cancer incidence. While tobacco use in males and females is now similar, we are still seeing the effects of tobacco use in the population 20 to 30 years ago when men smoked at least twice as much as women," she said.

"This has resulted in levels of lung, stomach and oesophageal cancer in males, which is one and a half times those in females.

"Unfortunately, these cancers have poor relative survival - lung cancer at five years is 9%, stomach 17% and oesophagus 13%.

"In addition people with a tobacco-related cancer tend also to have other tobacco-related diseases, especially heart disease, which reduces the chance of a full recovery."

Dr Gavin predicted that survival rates would continue to improve.

"There are ongoing moves within the Health Service to improve services for cancer patients and reduce waiting times. This should improve the treatment of cancer patients and survival. Prevention is, however, still better than cure and people are urged to take simple lifestyle steps to reduce their risk of ever getting cancer," she added.

Vice-Chancellor of Queen's, Professor Peter Gregson, said "timely, detailed and accurate statistical information is crucial in the fight against cancer".

The NICR is the principal source of information on cancer in Northern Ireland.

Other findings included:

> Survival estimates in Northern Ireland were similar to those in England, with survival better for female lung, melanoma and female kidney cancer and lower for cervical, uterus, prostrate and bladder cancers.

> Compared to Europe, survival in Northern Ireland for stomach, lung, prostrate, uterine and bladder cancer was poorer. Survival from melanoma, however, was higher than the European average.

> One in three of the population develops a cancer by the time they reach 75 years old. Excluding NMSC, the risk for both males and females is one in four.

> Cancer was responsible for approximately one quarter of all deaths between 2000 and 2004, making it the second most common cause of death.

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