Huge Increase in Cancers Predicted by 2050 – Driven Mainly by Tobacco, Alcohol, Obesity and Air Pollution 
Patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

New cancer cases are projected to increase by a massive 77% between 2022 and 2050 – mainly as a result of tobacco, alcohol, obesity and air pollution.

Ageing and population growth are also factors pushing new cases from 20 million in 2022 to an expected 35 million in 2050, according to the Global Cancer Observatory  released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on Thursday.

The IARC research, published every two years, covers 185 countries and 36 cancers with data drawn from countries themselves.

Lung cancer was both the most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths in 2022 – likely because of “persistent tobacco use in Asia”, according to the IARC, which is the World Health Organization (WHO)’s cancer agency .

There were 2.5 million new lung cancer cases (12.4% of total cases) and 1.8 million deaths (18.7% of total) in 2022 – with men being more likely to succumb than women.

Breast cancer ranked second (2.3 million cases, 11.6%), followed by colorectal cancer (1.9 million cases, 9.6%), prostate cancer (1.5 million cases, 7.3%), and stomach cancer (970 000 cases, 4.9%).

However, colorectal cancer was the second biggest killer (900 000 deaths, 9.3%), followed by liver cancer (760 000 deaths, 7.8%). Breast cancer, which is the biggest killer of women, was the third highest cause of cancer mortality with 670 000 deaths (6.9%), closely followed by stomach cancer (660 000 deaths, 6.8%). 

Absolute numbers of cancers per continent in 2022

Low-income countries face doubling of deaths

In terms of the absolute burden, wealthier countries with a high human development index (HDI) – a measure of life expectancy, education rates and income – are expected to experience the greatest absolute increase in incidence, with an additional 4.8 million new cases by 2050 compared. 

Yet the increase in incidence is most striking in low HDI countries, which face a projected 142% increase, and in medium HDI countries (99%). Cancer deaths are projected to almost double in 2050.

“Those who have the fewest resources to manage their cancer burdens will bear the brunt of the global cancer burden,” says Dr Freddie Bray, IARC’s head of the cancer surveillance told a media briefing this week. 

Bray also called for better cancer data, as a number of countries do not have cancer registries.

Global cancer burden 2022


The Global Cancer Observatory was released alongside a WHO survey on cancer care on the eve of World Cancer Day on 4 February.

Only 39% of 115 countries surveyed covered the basics of cancer management as part of their financed core health services for all – ‘health benefit packages’ (HBP) – according to the WHO survey.

People living in poorer countries had much worse outcomes thanks to later diagnosis and often unaffordable treatment

In countries with a very high HDI, one in 12 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and one in 71 women die of it.  But in countries with a low HDI, only one in 27 women will be diagnosed and one in 48 women will die from it.

“Women in lower HDI countries are 50% less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than women in high HDI countries, yet they are at a much higher risk of dying of the disease due to late diagnosis and inadequate access to quality treatment,” explains Dr Isabelle Soerjomataram, IARC’s deputy head of cancer surveillance.

Meanwhile, cervical cancer was the eighth most commonly occurring cancer globally and the ninth leading cause of cancer death. It is the most common cancer in African women with significant mortality although it can be eliminated as a public health problem through the scale-up of the WHO Cervical Cancer Elimination Initiative.

Female cancer mortality: Africa compared to Europe

“Despite the progress that has been made in the early detection of cancers and the treatment and care of cancer patients, significant disparities in cancer treatment outcomes exist not only between high and low-income regions of the world, but also within countries,” says Dr Cary Adams, head of the Union for International Cancer Control.

“Where someone lives should not determine whether they live. Tools exist to enable governments to prioritise cancer care, and to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, quality services. This is not just a resource issue but a matter of political will.”

Unaffordable treatment

WHO’s global survey of health benefit packages also revealed significant global inequities in cancer services. 

Lung cancer-related services were four to seven times more likely to be included in standard health benefits in high-income than lower-income countries. On average, there was a four-fold greater likelihood of radiation services being covered in a HBP of a high-income than a lower-income country. The widest disparity for any service was stem-cell transplantation, which was 12 times more likely to be included in a HBP of a high-income than a lower-income country.

“WHO’s new global survey sheds light on major inequalities and lack of financial protection for cancer around the world, with populations, especially in lower income countries, unable to access the basics of cancer care,” said Dr Bente Mikkelsen, WHO’s Director of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs). 

“WHO, including through its cancer initiatives, is working intensively with more than 75 governments to develop, finance and implement policies to promote cancer care for all. To expand on this work, major investments are urgently needed to address global inequities in cancer outcomes.”

Image Credits: Roche.

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