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It is nearly 50 years since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published where she popularised a belief that we are all being poisoned by artificial chemicals.

For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.

She popularised the idea that we are suffering an epidemic of cancer. The idea has not gone away. Some randomly selected modern comment illustrates the currency of the idea. A 2008 opinion article in the New York Times proposed that "we can stop this epidemic of cancer". The London Evening Standard reports "Modern living to blame for cancer epidemic". A quick Google search will reveal the ubiquity of the assumption that we are faced with an epidemic (though there is some disagreement on the cause).

But not everyone agrees. This piece from Reason.com asks "what cancer epidemic?" and quotes an ACS report:

Overall cancer incidence and death rates have continued to decrease in men and women since the early 1990s, and the decline in overall cancer mortality has been greater in recent years...

So the common assumption is that there is an epidemic. But some solid figures don't seem to support the idea. One reason might be confusion around the statistics (for example failing to adjust for age or smoking). Who is right?

Just to be clear about the question and to avoid some possible distractions, the question is not about causes of cancer, just rates. Further, the specific question is whether cancer rates adjusted to exclude smoking (a major contributor) and to correct for age are growing significantly.

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    This question is going to be difficult to answer, because "cancer" is not a single disease, but a broad range of problems with a broad range of causes (some even, shockingly, aren't caused by smoking!). Grouping them together as one item isn't helpful. – Oddthinking Dec 15 '11 at 0:11
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    Between longer lives overall, better control of many other common killers, better diagnoses, and higher survival rates you probably know more people who have or have had cancer than your parents did when they were your age. This kind of thing could contribute to a impression that there is more cancer about. – dmckee Dec 15 '11 at 2:03
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    It seems to me that smoking (or, for that matter, standing near smokers) really ought to count as "contact with dangerous chemicals". – Joel Rein Dec 15 '11 at 3:38
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    to add to dmckee's argument: in the past a lot of things we now diagnose as cancer went undiagnosed or were misdiagnosed, so historical data will show an increase in the number of cancer cases as diagnostic techniques changed. – jwenting Dec 15 '11 at 6:36
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    The reason cancer is becoming a more prevalent 'disease' is because we've gotten really damn good at eliminating causes of death that aren't cancer. – Shadur Mar 22 '16 at 5:15
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No, there is not currently an epidemic of cancer. Cancer incidence rates for the last 10 years have been fairly flat.

Source - UK cancer incidence data

All Malignant Neoplasms Excluding Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer (C00-C97 excl. C44), European Age-Standardised Incidence Rates, Great Britain, 1975-2008

All Malignant Neoplasms Excluding Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer (C00-C97 excl. C44), European Age-Standardised Incidence Rates, Great Britain, 1975-2008

The European age-standardised incidences rate for all cancers in Great Britain increased by 16% in males and 34% in females during the period 1977-1979 and 2006-2008, with almost this entire rise occurring before the late 1990s.

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    Would be interesting to see it side-by-side with live expectancy figures. – vartec Dec 15 '11 at 14:37
  • Are these adjusted for age or just for raw population? – matt_black Dec 15 '11 at 14:38
  • These are Age-Standardised – Tom77 Dec 15 '11 at 15:29
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    Can we exclude the cancers that are specifically caused by smoking? – matt_black Dec 16 '11 at 16:04
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    It would be nice to see these corrected for first-time cancer, because increased survival rate would certainly inflate the total incidence. – RomanSt Dec 19 '11 at 21:18
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No, there is not currently an epidemic of cancer. Instead, cancer rates appear to be holding steady over the long term while other causes of death are dropping dramatically. This appears to be the reason that cancer is now the leading cause of death in developed countries, rather than because cancer rates are rising significantly.

In searching for better historical data than the first reply, I found this paper from the Max Planck institute for Demographic Research.

Here we have an illustration showing "Annual death rates from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer from 1900 to 1980 for U.S. women aged 60 - 65". This data eliminates the other usual early causes of death like childhood disease, so focuses on later-life causes of death instead. This graph shows that "other causes" has dramatically decreased since 1900 (which is expected - medical science had advanced greatly in the 20th century), that deaths from heart disease have decreased dramatically since about 1950, but cancer has continued to be largely incurable, while the rate at which we contract it has neither increased nor declined significantly.

I find these results satisfy my own criticism of the previous data as well as covering other causes of cancer that might have more to do with modern life.

Edited to add:

Statistics Canada just released a nice graph showing all causes of death since 1950. We see that around 2005, Canada's death rate due to diseases of the circulatory system has dropped below all cancers. And that all cancers has not significantly changed since 1950, although there's been a bit of a dip since about 2003.

enter image description here

  • It would be worth including some quotes or charts from that report to improve your answer. I suspect your conclusions are right, but good answers include the key items inside the answer to avoid imposing extra effort on readers and link rot. – matt_black Jul 5 '13 at 20:46

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