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Cancer cases up 30% in just two decades... and you're at more risk if you live in Belfast

Cancer unit will need one extra storey every 15 years to cope with patients

By Victoria O'Hara

The risk of being diagnosed with cancer is 8% higher in Belfast than the rest of Northern Ireland, new research has revealed.

And with cases rising by around 30% in 20 years, experts have said a new storey would have to be built on the Belfast Cancer Centre every 15 years to cope with patient levels.

Dr Anna Gavin, director of Queen's University's Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, made the comments as a study has shown for the first time which cancers are more common across the new 11 council areas. Despite treatment and survival rates improving, an increasingly ageing population, along with higher detection rates combined with smoking levels, have contributed to the diagnosis of cases.

A detailed breakdown produced by Queen's University's Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, entitled Cancer Statistics by Local Government District, shows a "valuable insight" into variations across the province.

According to the research, there were 8,615 cases of cancer diagnosed annually from 2008-12. This excluded the rarely fatal non-melanoma skin cancer. But the average number of cases diagnosed (also excluding skin cancer) ranged from 513 in Fermanagh and Omagh to 1,688 in Belfast.

In Belfast, lung cancer, stomach cancer, cervical cancer, head and neck cancer, kidney cancer and liver cancer were most common. In Derry and Strabane both lung and stomach cancer were also the most common.

And in the Newry, Mourne and Down district colorectal cancer was most prevalent. Cases of pancreatic cancer were higher in the Causeway Coast & Glens.

Overall, among males the most common cancers were prostate (23.7%), followed by colorectal (15.2%) and then lung cancer (14.7%). For women the most common cancer was breast (29.1%) followed by colorectal (12.4%) and then lung (10.6%)

Dr Gavin said a significant factor in the variation is differences in lifestyle, such as smoking, linked to lung cancer, which is in the top three cancers in both men and women.

The author of the report Dr David Donnelly said: "This information provides valuable insight into geographic variations in cancer incidence allowing public health officials the opportunity to target public health messages regarding cancer risk towards those communities most in need of it and to potentially learn best practice from those areas with lower than average rates. In addition the data provides useful information to health service providers, which assists them in planning of resources".

Dr Gavin said it was hoped the local data will help the new councils tackle the specific problems in their areas - in particular tobacco-linked cancers.

"Every year there are 1,000 people who die from lung cancer," she said. "We need to do something very drastic to address tobacco-related cancers. We have been collecting information for Northern Ireland over 20 years and in that time a number of total cases increased by 30%.

"Our health service is working very hard to ensure they have the best treatment and are among the best in the world - but the strain of that additional 30% means that it is putting a huge burden on it.

"We have the new cancer centre but every 15 years we would have to be building a new storey to cope with the extra number of patients."

Further reading:

Higher rate of cancer diagnosis in Belfast is linked to smoking 

25 receive cancer diagnosis every day, but it's no longer a death sentence 

Breast cancer: Metal tests developed from geology could help improve screening

Rise in cancers is disquieting 

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