(CNN) — Cancer cases are expected to surge by 70% worldwide in the next 20 years, an imminent “human disaster” that will require a renewed focus on prevention to combat, according to the World Health Organization.
The World Cancer Report, produced by the WHO’s specialized cancer agency, predicts new cancer cases will rise from an estimated 14 million in 2012 to 22 million annually within two decades. Over the same period, cancer deaths are tipped to rise from 8.2 million a year to 13 million annually.
The rising incidence of cancer, brought about by growing, aging populations worldwide, will require a heavier focus on preventive public health policies, said Christopher Wild, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
“We cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem,” he said. “More commitment to prevention and early detection is desperately needed in order to complement improved treatments and address the alarming rise in cancer burden globally.”
The report notes that the rocketing cost of responding to the “cancer burden” — in 2010, the economic cost of the disease worldwide was estimated at $1.16 trillion — is hurting the economies of rich countries and beyond the means of poor ones.
The report said about half of all cancers were preventable, and could be avoided if current medical knowledge was acted upon. The disease could be tackled by addressing lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, diet and exercise; adopting screening programs; or, in the case of infection-triggered cancers such as cervical and liver cancers, through vaccines.
Cutting smoking rates would have a significant impact, as lung cancer remained the most commonly diagnosed cancer (1.8 million cases a year, or 13% of total cancer diagnoses) and the deadliest, accounting for about a fifth (1.6 million) of all cancer deaths worldwide.
The report’s authors suggested governments take similar legislative approaches to those they had taken against tobacco in attempting to reduce consumption of alcohol and sugary drinks, and in limiting exposure to occupational and environmental carcinogens, including air pollution.
According to the report, the next two most common diagnoses were for breast (1.7 million, 11.9%) and large bowel cancer (1.4 million, 9.7%). Liver (800,000 or 9.1%) and stomach cancer (700,000 or 8.8%) were responsible for the most deaths after lung cancer.
“The rise of cancer worldwide is a major obstacle to human development and well-being,” said Wild. “These new figures and projections send a strong signal that immediate action is needed to confront this human disaster, which touches every community worldwide.”
The report said the growing cancer burden would disproportionately hit developing countries — which had the least resources to deal with the problem — due to their populations growing, living longer and becoming increasingly susceptible to cancers associated with industrialized lifestyles.
More than 60% of the world’s cases and about 70% of the world’s cancer deaths occurred in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
Governments needed to appreciate that screening and early detection programs were “an investment rather than a cost,” said Bernard Stewart, co-editor of the report — and low-tech approaches had proven successful in some developing countries.
The World Cancer Report, which is published about once every five years, involved a collaboration of around 250 scientists from more than 40 countries. Tuesday is World Cancer Day.
By Tim Hume