Sharp rise in number diagnosed with cancer

Experts worry people aren't making lifestyle changes to avoid preventable cancers

Each day, 36 people in Singapore are told that they have cancer, marking a worrying rise in the country's top killer.

Cancer cases have jumped by about 17 per cent since 2010, despite certain cancers being preventable if people choose healthier lifestyles and drop bad habits.

Associate Professor Chng Wee Joo, director of the National University Cancer Institute, said: "This trend remains a concern as it means we have not been making much headway in the prevention of cancers."

According to the latest figures released by the National Registry of Diseases Office, 13,416 people were diagnosed last year with cancer. The year before, the number was 12,651 and in 2010, it was 11,431.

The disease remains the top cause of death here, with around one in three dying of it now.

One of the biggest increases was in breast cancer, the most common cancer among women here. Cases rose from 7,481 in the five-year period between 2005 and 2009, to 9,284 between 2010 and last year.

Colorectal cancer, which has one of the highest mortality rates among various cancers, also saw a rise in cases. There were 9,324 new cases between 2010 and last year, compared to 7,937 cases in the previous five-year period.

According to Prof Chng, the rate at which cancer occurred in the population in the last decade was "slightly higher than in preceding decades".

Associate Professor Lim Soon Thye, head of the division of medical oncology at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, said experts estimate that four in 10 cases of cancer may be preventable.

This is if people adopt certain lifestyle habits, such as not smoking, keeping a healthy body weight, sticking to a balanced diet with regular exercise, cutting back on alcohol and going for vaccinations.

The Health Promotion Board, which released the interim annual report on trends in local cancer incidence recently, said forming healthier habits takes time.

"Lifestyle and environmental factors will take time to change. Hence, the type and order of top-ranked cancers in Singapore have remained more or less the same over the years," said Dr Shyamala Thilagaratnam, director of the regional health and community outreach division at the board. "This trend is likely to continue in the near future."

While the increase in cancer cases is partly due to a growing population, the chances of people getting the disease have also gone up, following a global trend.

An average of 328 women out of every 100,000 in the resident population got cancer each year for the period from 2010 to last year, compared with 265 from 2003 to 2007 - a 24 per cent rise. Among men, it went up by a similar rate, from 255 out of every 100,000 to 316.

Prof Lim put this down to an ageing population. "Cancer rates increase sharply with age. About 60 per cent of new cancer cases diagnosed involve those aged 60 and above," he said.

Not all cancers can be avoided by living healthily.

People need to get themselves screened to catch diseases such as breast, cervical and colorectal cancers in their early stages, when treatments are simpler and more effective, said Dr Thilagaratnam.

Prof Chng said creating greater public awareness and making it more convenient for people to do this is important because current screening programmes are seeing very low take-up rates.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline Sharp rise in number diagnosed with cancer. Subscribe