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Deadly threat of pancreatic cancer

A man receiving a blood transfusion24/4/14

By John von Radowitz

Pancreatic cancer stands alone as an increasingly deadly threat to both men and women in Europe, a study has shown.

Experts called for priority to be given to preventing and treating the terrible disease, which is predicted to kill 82,300 people in the EU this year.

While proportionately more people are dying from pancreatic cancer, the new research recorded falling death rates for all but one of seven other types of the disease.

The exception was lung cancer - but only in women, due to the fact that generations of them took up smoking later than men.

Overall rates have dropped since 1988

Since overall cancer mortality in Europe peaked in 1988, it will have dropped by 26% for men and 20% for women in 2014, say the researchers.

The new figures translate to an estimated 250,000 deaths avoided compared with 1988, according to the findings published in the journal Annals of Oncology.

Lead scientist Professor Carlo La Vecchia, from the University of Milan, said: "Our predictions for 2014 confirm that pancreatic death rates are continuing to increase overall.

"This year we predict that 41,300 men and 41,000 women will die from pancreatic cancer - an age standardised rate of eight and 5.6 deaths respectively per 100,000 of the population. This represents a small but steady increase since the beginning of this century; between 2000-2004, death rates from the disease were 7.6 per 100,000 men and five per 100,000 women.

"The increased death rate is cause for concern, because the prognosis for this tumour is bleak, with less than 5% of pancreatic cancer patients surviving for five years after diagnosis.

"As so few patients survive, the increase in deaths is very closely related to the increase in incidence of this disease. This makes pancreatic cancer a priority for finding better ways to prevent and control it and better treatments."

The study looked at cancer rates in the whole of the EU, encompassing the 27 member states it included in 2007.

Data based on death certificates and population were collected for stomach, bowel, pancreatic, lung, breast, uterus (including cervical), and prostate cancers, as well as leukaemias.

The analysis showed that absolute numbers of cancer deaths had increased since 2009 when the last mortality figures for the EU were published by the World Health Organisation.

However, the proportion of the population dying had fallen by 7% for men and 5% for women.

This year, 742,500 men and 581,100 women in the EU were expected to die from some form of cancer.

Among men, predicted rates for lung, bowel and prostate cancer had fallen by 8%, 4% and 10% respectively since 2009.

Breast and bowel cancer rates for women fell by 9% and 7%, but lung cancer death rates were expected to rise by 8%.

Pancreatic cancer figures

Focusing on pancreatic cancer, numbers of deaths per 100,000 of population had gone up from 7.85 to 8.13 for men and from 5.33 to 5.56 for women since 2009.

Pancreatic cancer figures for the six largest EU countries showed that in the UK, death rates for the disease had risen steadily since 2000 - 2004.

This year 6.56 men per 100,000 in the UK were expected to die from pancreatic cancer compared with 6.47 in 2005 - 2009, and 6.35 in 2000 - 2004.

Comparable figures for women were 5.22 per 100,000 in 2014, 5.02 in 2005 - 2009, and 4.75 in 2000 - 2004.

What is driving the worsening trend for pancreatic cancer is unclear, but major risk factors for the disease include smoking, alcohol consumption, and family history.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Paolo Boffetta, associate editor for epidemiology at the Annals of Oncology and director of the Institute of Translational Epidemiology at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York, said: "These results are extremely important in showing that reducing cancer mortality can be achieved: priority should be given to research in cancers with unfavourable trends, such as pancreatic cancer, and in reducing cancer mortality disparities, both between countries (Central/Eastern versus Western Europe), and within countries, for example, between socio-economic groups."

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