Why Most Cancer Deaths Could Be Eliminated by 2050

Cancer cells in human connective tissue. Dr. Cecil Fox [public domain]/Wikimedia

If advancements in treatment and prevention continue at their current rapid pace, new research predicts that deaths from cancer will be nearly eliminated in the next few decades for people in most age groups.

That's uplifting news, and just in time for World Cancer Day on Feb. 4.

A report from researchers (pdf) at University College London and Kings College London says, "It is realistic to expect that by 2050 nearly all cancer related deaths in children and adults aged up to (say) 80 years will have become preventable through life style changes and because of the availability of protective technologies and better pharmaceutical and other therapies."

According to the World Health Organization, 14 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year, with about 8.2 million dying of the disease.

And those numbers are generally thought to be on the rise. WHO reports that the number of new cancer cases is expected to increase by 70 percent over the next two decades. Over the same time period, cancer deaths are predicted to rise from 8.2 million a year to 13 million annually.

But keep moving into the future — when technology and treatment have really advanced — and those numbers will conceivably drop.

The researchers point out that cancer advances have come in leaps and bounds in the past few years.

"Continuing rapid advances in biomedicine and associated disciplines, including not only molecular biology and human genetics but also health psychology and medical sociology, have led to claims that more has been learned about cancer in the past two decades than in the preceding two thousand years," the report says.

So if research continues at that pace, it makes sense that this progress would be successful in making inroads in stopping cancer mortality.

The researchers credit factors such as earlier diagnosis, declining smoking rates, and better radiological, surgical and drug treatments. Because people are more aware of cancer and its symptoms, for example, they are more likely to see a doctor and catch it earlier, in the treatable stage.

But they caution that there is no simple answer to ending cancer and there must be a deeper investment in cancer care.

"Such realities mean that there cannot ever be a single, low cost, ‘magic bullet’ technical solution to overcoming all the challenges that cancer presents."