A new report from the World Health Organization’s cancer agency reveals that cancer rates are growing at an “alarming pace” around the world and urges stronger efforts on prevention measures to curb the disease.

The World Cancer Report 2014, from the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), estimates that the global burden of cancer will rise from an estimated 14 million new cases per year in 2012 to 22 million within the next 20 years.

Due to growing and aging populations, developing countries are disproportionately affected by the growing numbers of cancers. Over 60% of the global burden is in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, where 70% of cancer deaths occur, and where lack of early detection and treatment is a growing problem.

There is an urgent need to put in place measures to prevent the disease, says the report, adding that half of all cancers could be avoided if we use what we already know more effectively.

Dr. Christopher Wild, report co-editor and director of the IARC, says:

“Despite exciting advances, this Report shows that we cannot treat our way out of the cancer problem. 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.”

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide – in 2012 the WHO estimates there were 8.2 million deaths to cancer, with lung cancer claiming the most lives (1.59 million), followed by liver (745,000 deaths), stomach (723,000 deaths), colorectal (694,000 deaths), breast (521,000 deaths) and esophageal cancer (400 000 deaths).

Access to effective and affordable cancer treatment, including for childhood cancers, would have a significant impact, even where health care is not so advanced, say the report authors.

However, the “spiralling costs” of dealing with cancer are damaging the economies of even the richest nations and are way beyond the pockets of countries that are less well off.

In 2010, the total global annual cost of cancer reached an estimated US$1.16 trillion.

Many cancers have a high chance of cure if detected early and if we were to effectively implement what we already know. The report says we could avoid about half of all cancers in this way.

The main risk factors for cancer worldwide are use of tobacco and alcohol, unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity, says the report, while chronic infections from viruses like hepatitis B, hepatitis C and some types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) are leading risk factors in low- and middle-income countries.

Tobacco use has the single biggest impact. It accounts for 22% of global cancer deaths and over 70% of global lung cancer deaths.

In many poorer countries, infection by hepatitis B and HPV account for up to one fifth of cancer deaths.

More than 30% of cancer deaths could be prevented by modifying or avoiding known risk factors, including:

  • Stopping use of tobacco
  • Preventing or reducing being overweight or obese
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Eating a healthy diet with high intake of fruits and vegetables
  • Protecting against sexually trasmitted Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection – which can cause cervical cancer, a leading cause of cancer death in women in low-income countries
  • Reducing urban air pollution and indoor household smoke from solid fuels.

Dr. Wild adds:

The rise of cancer worldwide is a major obstacle to human development and well-being. These new figures and projections send a strong signal that immediate action is needed to confront this human disaster, which touches every community worldwide, without exception.”