It is frightening to realise that the incidence of cancer in Northern Ireland has risen by 30% in just 20 years. In public health terms that is almost an explosion. We had been warned in recent decades that the number of people affected by the disease would increase, but few of us thought that the numbers would rise so swiftly.
he figures come from the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, an invaluable research programme which not only collates the overall statistics on cancer incidence, but breaks it down by district council area and by types of the disease.
The main factor in the increase is the ageing population. The longer you live the more likely you are to contract some form of cancer. That is the bad news. The good news is that early detection and improved treatments mean that more and more people are surviving cancer. They die with it, rather than from it.
The increased survival rates are due to the reorganisation of cancer services, creating specialist hubs in the major hospitals and a cancer centre in Belfast, into which the latest developments in treatment are fed.
A huge amount of research into the various types of cancer is also taking place in Belfast, making it a leading centre in the UK for the treatment of certain types of the disease.
Progress, however, is slower in persuading people to change their lifestyles. Even though smoking has now been outlawed in the workplace and public buildings, too many people are still addicted to tobacco and that is demonstrated by the fact that lung cancer figures among the top three cancers in both men and women. There is no doubt that public health campaigns must make even greater efforts to not only get smokers to stop, but also persuade young people not to take up the habit.
Such is the certainty of the link between smoking and certain types of cancer, that perhaps the tobacco companies should be compelled to help foot the bill for treating sufferers. Could a windfall tax on the companies be one way of helping the hard-pressed health service cope with the increasing numbers of patients who come through the hospital doors due to smoking-related diseases?
The increase in cancer patients is putting a huge strain on services. As the new report puts it, if the increase continues at the same pace then we will need a new storey on the cancer centre every 15 years. That is not sustainable.