Cancer cases on the rise in Singapore

Worrying trend of more lifestyle cancers like prostate, breast tumours

Cancer is on the rise in Singapore - especially those linked to bad habits associated with the modern lifestyle, including smoking and eating too much.

According to the latest available figures from two years ago, 12,123 people were diagnosed with cancer, up from 10,576 in 2008. This marks an increase of nearly 15 per cent.

One reason for these numbers, said National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) director Soo Khee Chee, is an ageing population. The NCCS is Singapore's leading cancer treatment and research centre.

"In developed countries like ours, people are living longer. Previously, people would die before they got cancer," he said.

But what is more worrying is how "lifestyle cancers" such as prostate, breast and colo-rectum cancers are contributing to the rise as well.

Prostate cancer cases went up by 52 per cent from 2003 to 2012, when cases of breast cancer also rose by 25 per cent.

These cancers are, respectively, among the top three most common in men and women. They are also known as "developed world cancers" because they are associated with the lifestyle in these countries.

One factor that increases the chance of cancer is smoking, said Professor Soo.

"Overall, the rate of smoking is moving downwards, but there is a trend of more younger people here taking it up," he said.

Health Promotion Board figures from 2010 showed that 16 per cent of young people aged 18 to 29 smoked regularly, up from 12 per cent in 2004.

Other factors contributing to the rise of cancer here are poor diet and lack of exercise, because we are "overfed and eating the wrong food", Prof Soo said.

Having fewer children and having them later also increase a woman's chances of getting cancer, he added.

Cancer remains the No.1 killer in Singapore, with 30 per cent of deaths in 2011 caused by the disease. This is five times more than deaths caused by accidents, violence and poisoning together.

But the outlook is not all bleak.

The chances of getting cancer can be lowered dramatically by modifying one's lifestyle. Stopping young people from smoking, for instance, "will almost decrease cancer deaths by a third if we succeed", Prof Soo said.

Some of the most common cancers are also those which have the highest survival rates.

Breast cancer - which is the most common cancer in women - has a five-year overall survival rate of 89 per cent. This means that 89 of every 100 people diagnosed with breast cancer were still alive after five years. The corresponding figure for lymphoma was 70 per cent, while that for colon cancer was 60 per cent.

"Cancer is not a death sentence," said Prof Soo. "It would be a pity if cancer patients go into despair or give up because they think that way."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.