Understanding cancer statistics - incidence, survival, mortality

On this page you can read about the different types of cancer statistics, including:

How many people are diagnosed with cancer – incidence

Incidence means how many people get a particular type of cancer. It is often written as the number of cancer cases per 100,000 people in the general population.

More than 331,000 people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK. That is around 910 people every day.

Men are more likely to get cancer than women. Each year, in the UK around 167,480 men are diagnosed and around 164,000 women.

Incidence can vary by age as well as other factors. As people get older their chance of getting cancer generally gets higher, although there are variations for specific types of cancer. Nearly two thirds of cancers (63%) are diagnosed in people aged 65 and over. 

How many people are living with cancer – prevalence

Cancer prevalence means the number of people in the population who have had a diagnosis of cancer. There are more than 2 million people living with cancer in the UK.

Some of these people will have been diagnosed some time ago and may have been cured or are cancer free. Other people may have been diagnosed more recently and are living with cancer. So prevalence means all the people who have a type of cancer at a particular time.

Survival statistics

Cancer survival means the percentage of people still alive after a particular amount of time.

Survival statistics for cancer are usually written as 1 year survival, 5 year survival or 10 year survival. These statistics can sometimes be difficult to understand. They mean the percentage of people who are alive 1, or 5, or 10 years after their diagnosis.

Usually, these statistics don't mean that actual people were counted. It is usually a calculation. For 5 year survival, it doesn't mean that these people lived for exactly 5 years and then died. It doesn't mean that they were all cured either. Some of these people will be cured and the cancer will never come back. For some people the cancer may have come back and they are living with it. In some people the cancer may come back after a 5 year period. 

Survival statistics usually give an overall picture and the survival time for an individual person may be higher or lower, depending on various factors.

5 year survival by stage

You may come across 5 year survival figures by stage of cancer. This uses the stage of cancer at the point of diagnosis when calculating survival. The stages of cancer may be simplified into groups such as

  • Local disease (cancer that has stayed in the area where is was diagnosed)
  • Metastatic disease (cancer that has spread to another part of the body)

Or the statistics may be divided by the stage of the cancer, such as statistics for

  • Stage 1 cancer (small and localised)
  • Stage 2 cancer (larger but localised)
  • Stage 3 cancer (spread into surrounding tissues or lymph nodes)
  • Stage 4 cancer (spread to other parts of the body)

Disease free survival

Disease free survival figures means everyone with that type of cancer who is alive and well (without a recurrence of their cancer) 5 years after diagnosis.

The number of deaths from cancer – mortality

Mortality means the number of people who have died. It is often written as the number of people who have died of cancer per 100,000 people in the general population.

Mortality figures for cancer need to be looked at alongside incidence figures and other statistics. It is important to remember that these statistics are very general. You may read that 49,936 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK in 2011 and 11,643 women died in that year. Almost all of the women who died would have been diagnosed some years before. In a lot of cases, they would have lived for many years after their cancer diagnosis.

Cancer risk statistics

In terms of cancer, risk is the likelihood of developing or dying from cancer, either within a given period of time or over a lifetime.

The risk of getting any particular type of cancer is often written as life time risk. Using the available figures, statisticians work out the risk of being diagnosed with cancer at some point during our lives.

This figure is sometimes written as a proportion: for example, the calculated life time risk of lung cancer for a man in the UK is 1 in 14. This means that out of every 14 men in the UK, one will get lung cancer at some point in his life (and 13 won't).

To change this to a percentage, you divide it into 100. 100 divided by 14 equals 7. So the percentage life time risk of lung cancer for a man in the UK is 7%. This is the overall risk. The risk may be higher or lower, depending on particular factors such as whether a person smokes or not.

Lifetime risk is a cumulative risk. This means that the risk adds up as you get older. So the risk for an average 45 year old person is not 1 in 14 – it will be much lower.

Cancer risk statistics can't help us to identify who will get particular cancers. But they can sometimes help us to know who may have a higher risk than other people in the general population.

Statistics and you

Statistics can't tell you exactly what will happen to you personally. They are information that applies to a group or population of people from which the statistics were calculated. This could be tens, hundreds or thousands of people.

You and your situation are unique. As there is no one else quite like you, then no statistics are able to give you exact answers about the outcome of your particular cancer.

Statistics and treatment

Statistics can sometimes be used by you and your doctor to help choose which treatments are most likely to benefit you. Some computer programmes compare the results of many trials to give statistics on the likely benefits of different treatments. One that you might hear mentioned is called Adjuvant! Online. Doctors might use programmes like this to predict how well particular treatments may work for you.

More information about cancer statistics

Understanding statistics can be very important if you are trying to find out about new cancer treatments or looking into other treatment options.

There is information about this in the page about understanding statistics in cancer research.

If you want to find out the likely outcome for a particular type of cancer, you can look at the statistics and outlook page for your cancer type.

Go to the cancer types section.

To find detailed information about cancer statistics for all types of cancer, go to our Cancer Stats section.

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