The wonders of modern medicine and allied improvements in the understanding of matters like nutrition and toxicity have had a massive positive impact on the life expectancy of people in the most advanced countries in the world. But the benefits of advancement and affluence can bring with them a number of other health problems.
Whether it is pollution caused by industrialisation, easy access to unhealthy food that combines with sedentary lifestyles to increase obesity, or the health challenges that come from people living longer, there are some unfortunate trade-offs to contend with.
Cancer is undoubtedly one of those. Although some causes of cancer through exposure to carcinogenic substances are on the wane, such as fewer people smoking and better awareness of the risks from sunburn, other cancer-causing factors remain common and the chances of suffering from them increase with age.
EU data for 2022 has shown what the nature of the challenge now is for the Bloc’s 27 countries, including Austria. There were 2.74 million new cancer cases last year, up 2.3 per cent in the previous survey in 2020. Cancer deaths were up by 2.4 per cent to 1.3 million.
While the 0.1 per cent gap between case and death rates may not be statistically significant, nor does that indicate that a greater number of people are surviving.
The data showed that the most common form of death was still lung cancer, accounting for 19.5 per cent of cases, with colorectal cancer second at 12.3 per cent.
This differed somewhat from the detection rates, with lung cancer only accounting for 11.6 per cent of diagnoses, less than the 12.1 per cent figure for prostate cancer, the third most commonly diagnosed cancer but not one of the top four killers.
Of course, cancer treatment was impacted by Covid as lockdowns left some hesitant to seek medical examinations and a possible diagnosis for fear of contracting the virus, a genuine concern for older and more vulnerable people. However, the figures identified in the survey reflect some longer-term trends and pose a significant healthcare challenge.
If more people will contract cancer, it is important to ask what can be done about that. Should it be simply accepted that for many, this is how they eventually die in old age when in the past they would not have lived so long? Or can advances in radiotherapy and other treatments bring down mortality rates?
At our radiotherapy centre in Austria, every life saved is a triumph, although it must be noted that sometimes even the best radiotherapy can only prolong the life of cancer patients, not cure them outright.
The science of radiotherapy has been advancing ever since it was first used at the turn of the 20th century. Given the side effects that the use of radiation against cancer produces, the trade-off has always been at the centre of research into ways of making radiotherapy more efficient.
Of all the innovations in this area, the gamma knife may be the greatest, because it is so effective at focusing radiation exactly where it is needed, leaving surrounding areas virtually untouched, a critical issue when dealing with brain tumours.
However, other radiotherapy developments have similarly advanced the focus of beams, helping to direct radiation with ever more intensity and precision.
With this in mind, alongside advancements in other cancer treatments, there can be genuine hope that overall deaths can be reduced and that in time, even if cases rise, mortality can head in the opposite direction.
Indeed, while the EU figures were prefaced with the acknowledgement of the significance of old age in increasing cases and mortality, it also noted that 25 per cent of women and 31 per cent of men were expected to be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 75, with mortality rates of nine and 14 per cent respectively. Cutting the latter is a real goal to aim for.
Of course, the overall EU picture is different from that of individual countries. The charts show Austria fared better than average for both identified cases and mortality. That may indicate both better healthcare and healthier lifestyles to start with.
The EU currently projects that all-age mortality from Cancer will rise by 18.39 per cent to 3.25 million a year by 2040, with demographic factors accounting for the whole of this increase. With some EU countries having low birth rates and even falling populations, this is likely to be a matter of populations being older, not more numerous.
Austria is tipped to remain one of the countries with the lowest increases, but here and everywhere across Europe, the challenge will be to find ways of getting the numbers down.