PUBLISHED ON: 14 March 2018

Cancer researcher and science communicator Dr Alice Howarth explains how there are useful lessons in the cancer statistics that reflect a sad reality for thousands.

Doctor in laboratory

In February, media across the UK announced that in 2015, the number of prostate cancer deaths overtook the number of breast cancer deaths for the first time. In many cases, this included reporting that seemed to set up competition between the cancers, and between men and women.

For example, one headline in the Daily Mail read, ‘New figures show prostate cancer is a bigger killer than breast cancer, which gets TWICE the funding – IS THIS A CASE OF BIAS AGAINST MEN?’.

Looking more closely at the figures being reported, it seemed to me that the big news here is how much of a difference fundraising, research and awareness makes to cancer survival. The strides we have made in treating breast cancer – by doubling survival rates in the past four decades – give us confidence that we are doing the right thing. Also, that we can continue to build on that success, both for breast and prostate cancer treatments.

What are cancer survival rates in the UK?

In 2015, according to statistics by Cancer Research UK, 55,122 people were diagnosed with breast cancer. One in eight women will be diagnosed in their lifetime. Similarly, one in eight men in their lifetime will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, with 47,151 people diagnosed in 2015.

Alongside this, figures for cancer deaths in 2015 show that 11,819 men died from prostate cancer and 11,442 women from breast cancer.

Breast and prostate cancer 2015 mortality statistics

The number of men diagnosed with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer in 2015.

Breast cancer survival has doubled in 40 years

We know that since the late 1980s the number of deaths from breast cancer has been steadily decreasing so that breast cancer survival has doubled in the past 40 years. This is because we have put so much effort and funding into researching how the disease works and how to treat it. There has also been much more health promotion, helping to make sure women – and men – are aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.

By contrast, until the mid-1990s, deaths from prostate cancer were increasing. Although this number has been decreasing since then, the decrease in prostate cancer deaths is much slower than the decrease in deaths from breast cancer.

The value of comparing breast and prostate cancer rates

So, what is the value of comparing these figures? On the surface the figures may look similar but there are underlying differences which mean like is not being compared with like.

For example, the ageing population of the UK increases the figures for prostate cancer death more than it does for breast cancer deaths. This is because, although much less common in women under the age of 50, breast cancer deaths can happen at any adult age, while nearly 86% of prostate cancer deaths are in men over 70.

We need to learn from each other

I would suggest that the value lies in the opportunity to understand how much good we are doing by investing in breast cancer research and information, then aiming to transfer some of that success to other cancers, including prostate cancer.

It is vital for women to be aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, to check themselves routinely and to see a doctor if they have reason for concern. Equally men must be aware of the symptoms of prostate cancer.

Figures show that men are far less likely to visit a doctor if they are worried about symptoms, so let us all remember and remind people close to us that prostate cancer is a serious disease that can be managed with the help of a doctor. Wherever we can, let us support the fundraising efforts not just of breast cancer charities but also of charities such as Prostate Cancer UK.

Dr Alice Howarth

Alice Howarth (pictured right) blogs at DrAlice.blog and podcasts with the Merseyside Skeptics Society. You can find her on Twitter @AliceEmmaLouise.

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