The coming year will be a challenging one for breast cancer physicians and researchers as new figures show that the number of breast cancer cases worldwide is on the rise.

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently released the latest global statistics on cancer incidence, mortality and prevalence.

It shows that the number of cancer cases worldwide rose to 14.1 million in 2012 and highlights a dramatic increase in breast cancer cases. 

In 2012, 1.7 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer and there were 6.3 million women alive who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the previous five years. Since 2008, breast cancer incidence increased by more than 20 per cent, while mortality has increased by 14 per cent.

Breast cancer is also the most common cause of cancer death among women (522 000 deaths in 2012) and the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women in 140 of 184 countries worldwide. It now represents one in four of all cancers in women.

“Breast cancer is also a leading cause of cancer death in the less developed countries of the world. This is partly because a shift in lifestyles is causing an increase in incidence, and partly because clinical advances to combat the disease are not reaching women living in these regions,” says Dr David Forman, Head of the IARC Section of Cancer Information, the group that compiles the global cancer data.

Generally, worldwide trends show that in developing countries going through rapid societal and economic changes, the shift towards lifestyles typical of industrialized countries leads to a rising burden of cancers associated with reproductive, dietary, and hormonal risk factors. Incidence has been increasing in most regions of the world, but there are huge inequalities between rich and poor countries.

Incidence rates remain highest in more developed regions, but mortality is relatively much higher in less developed countries due to a lack of early detection and access to treatment facilities. For example, in western Europe, breast cancer incidence has reached more than 90 new cases per 100 000 women annually, compared with 30 per 100 000 in eastern Africa. In contrast, breast cancer mortality rates in these two regions are almost identical, at about 15 per 100 000, which clearly points to a later diagnosis and much poorer survival in eastern Africa.

“An urgent need in cancer control today is to develop effective and affordable approaches to the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of breast cancer for women living in less developed countries,” explains Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC. “It is critical to bring morbidity and mortality in line with progress made in recent years in more developed parts of the world.”

BCAC chair Libby Burgess says it’s disturbing to see such a dramatic increase in breast cancer diagnoses worldwide.

“It’s unsettling to see that this disease is on the increase and alarming to discover that mortality rates are disproportionately high in developing countries.  The global breast cancer community must strive to ensure that advances in detection, treatment and care are available to as many women as possible.”

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