A new estimate, published today in the cancer journal Annals of Oncology, reveals that 717,398 men and 565,703 women (1.3 million people) in the European Union (EU) will die from cancer in 2012.

Even though the actual numbers have risen, the rate (age-standardized per 100,000 population) of individuals who die from cancer is still declining.

According to the Swiss and Italian researchers, the overall cancer death rates will be 85 per 100,000 women and 139 per 100,000 men in 2012. Compared with confirmed deaths in 2007 – when the WHO had mortality data for the majority of EU countries, this represents a decrease of 7% in women and 10% in men.

In the 27 member states of the EU (as at 2007), as well as 6 individual countries – Germany, the UK, France, Spain, Italy and Poland – the researchers examined cancer rates for all cancers. In addition, the team individually looked at cancer rates for pancreas, stomach, breast, uterus (including cervix), lung, intestine, leukaemias, and prostate cancers.

Results from their study indicate that there will be a considerably reduction in breast cancer deaths in middle-aged, older and also younger women. They estimate that the number of breast cancer deaths will decrease by 9%, equal to a rate of 14.9 per 100,000 women. In addition, they predict breast cancer death rates among young women (aged 20-40) will decrease by 13%, equal to 6.3 per 100,000 women.

Professor Carlo La Vecchia (M.D.), one of the leaders of the study, head of the Department of Epidemiology at the Mario Negri Institute, and professor at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Milan, Italy, explained:

“The fact that there will be substantial falls in deaths from breast cancer, not only in middle age, but also in the young, indicates that important advancements in treatment and management are playing a major role in the decline in death rates, rather than mammographic screening, which is usually restricted to women aged 50-70 in most European countries.

In general, many important risk factors for breast cancer, including menstrual and reproductive factors, physical activity and obesity, have not changed favorably, and breast cancer incidence has probably not gone down, yet deaths from the disease are declining.”

In Europe as a whole, including Germany, Spain, France and Italy, breast cancer is currently the primary cause of female cancer deaths. In 2012, 88,000 women will die from breast cancer, equal to approximately 15% of all cancer deaths in European women. However, lung cancer is the primary cause of cancer death among women in the UK (21.4 per 100,000 women), and in Poland (16.9 per 100,000 women).

Among European women, lung cancer deaths are still increasing, with an overall rate of 13.44 per 100,000. Although lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men (37.2 per 100,000), equal to a 10% drop from 2007 when the rate was 41.3 per 100,000 men. According to the researchers, death rates from lung cancer will be lowest in the UK at 30.1 per 100,000 men and highest in Poland at 56.8 per 100,000 men.

The researchers found that for both men and women in the EU, rates of pancreatic cancer are increasing, rising from 5.24 in 2007 to 5.38 per 100,000 in women, and from 7.86 to 8.01 per 100,000 in men.

According to Professor La Vecchia:

“This is somewhat surprising for men, given the decline in smoking. Smoking and being overweight or obese are known to be risk factors for pancreatic cancer and so the increasing prevalence of obesity may be a reason. Another may be better diagnosis and certification. We do not know the causes of 70% of pancreatic cancers, but this rise is certainly not reassuring.”

Professor Fabio Levi, M.D., co-author of the report and Head of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois and University of Lausanna, (Switzerland), explain:

“Although actual numbers of deaths are slightly higher than those recorded in 2007, this is because a greater number of people are living into old age in the EU. The age-adjusted cancer mortality rates show a clear decrease in rates for both men and women over the past five years.

Apart from lung cancer in women and pancreatic cancer, the fall in mortality rates from six major cancers, in six major European countries, and in the EU as a whole, essentially reflects the decline in tobacco smoking in men, and the continuing progress in cancer prevention, early detection and treatment.”

In a 2003 Annals of Oncology paper, MJ Quinn, La Vecchia and colleagues, in parallel with an update to the European Code Against Cancer, reviewed cancer mortality trends in the EU and projected these would fall to 15% by 2015. In this latest paper, the researchers say that in 2012, this level may have been reached already.

The researchers explain:

“The percent decline estimated by 2012 is 18% in men and 13% in women. Thus the 15% decline in cancer mortality rates may have already been achieved after 12 years in men, and appears close for women, in spite of the unfavorable trends in female lung cancer rates.”

In order to calculate rates of cancer deaths each year and to identify trends, the team used data on cancer deaths in the EU from 1970 to 2007. These calculations and trends were then used to predict cancer mortality rates for 2012.

The team also predicted EU cancer deaths in 2011. The researchers said:

“Estimating current cancer mortality figures is important for defining priorities for prevention and treatment.”

Written by Grace Rattue