The alarming headline ‘Half of UK population “will get cancer in lifetime”’ has made a press release from Macmillan Cancer Support into a major news story today.
Not surprisingly the charity is using it as an opportunity to argue that ‘the NHS will not be able to cope with the huge increase in demand for cancer services’ and that we therefore need more investment in ‘proper after-care’ and in ‘engaging cancer patients on their own health’.
Many people reading these reports may be anxious about their own future health but the reality is that whilst people are more likely to get cancer in the future they are also less likely to die from it.
In 1992, the proportion of people in the UK who got cancer during their life was 32%. This increased to 44% in 2010 and is expected to level off at around 47% between 2020 and 2030.
But this needs to be balanced against changes in survival prospects. In 1992, 45,000 people, or 21% of those who had cancer, did not die from the disease. This increased to 35% in 2010 and is expected to rise to 38% in 2020.
So in simple terms your chances are 50/50 of getting cancer in 2020 but your chance of dying from it is only six in ten.
Overall the chance of dying from cancer will remain only slightly higher than it is now – about one in three.
The growth in the number of people getting cancer is explained by the fact that people are living longer, because as the population ages the incidence of cancer rises.
Macmillan puts the increased survival rates from cancer down to a greater focus on early diagnosis, advances in cancer treatments and better cancer care.
In the UK, more than one in three people will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Every year, around 309,500 people are diagnosed with the disease.
But experts estimate that more than four in 10 cancer cases could actually be prevented by lifestyle changes, such as: not smoking, keeping a healthy body weight, cutting back on alcohol, eating a healthy, balanced diet, keeping active, avoiding certain infections (like HPV), staying safe in the sun and avoiding certain occupational risks (see chemicals in the workplace).
Cancer, of course, is not just one disease but over 200 different conditions with a variety of levels of severity and outcome – and the outlook in any given cancer depends on its type, location and stage.
And if you avoid cancer then the likelihood is that you will die instead of heart disease, respiratory disease or stroke.
For Christians there are several big take home messages.
First is to appreciate that cancer is very common, so don’t be surprised if it happens to you or your loved ones. Rather prepare for it.
Second is to remember that your body is a gift from God and a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) so treat it with respect. You may, in so doing, lessen your chance of getting certain cancers.
Third is to accept that, unless Christ returns first, you are going to die of something so live your life with that in mind. As a surgeon I was continually surprised to meet patients who seemed to be under the illusion that it was never going to happen to them, or at least not yet.
Fourth is to keep it all in an eternal perspective.
The Bible says that all people ‘are destined to die once and after that to face judgment’ (Hebrews 9:27) and then to end up in one of two destinations for all eternity (Revelation 20:11-15). That is something that wonderfully focusses the mind about priorities on earth!
But the very next verse puts it all in perspective because it tells us the wonderful news that ‘Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many’ and that ‘he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him’ (Hebrews 9:27).
So are you waiting for him?
Medicine is limited. All it really can offer is a few more years of better quality.
The important thing to realise is that this life is only a shadow of what is to come, and that what follows this life is infinitely more important.
So don’t be scared of cancer. If it happens it happens. Instead grasp the fact that there is actually something far worse than cancer.
As Jesus said’ ‘I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.’ (Luke 12:5)
If you are not a Christian and that scares you, then you are not far from the Kingdom of God.