Lung cancer will kill more European women than breast cancer by 2015
Lung cancer will overtake breast cancer as the biggest killer of European women within the next two to three years, research from Italy and Switzerland has revealed.
The UK and Poland have already seen lung cancer leapfrog breast cancer as the main cause of cancer deaths in women.
That trend is partly down to large numbers of women taking up smoking in the 1960s and 1970s. This is now translating into more lung cancers, as the damage caused by long-term smoking takes hold in this generation of women.
More than 1.3 million people will die from cancer this year - around 738,000 men and nearly 576,00 women - across the European Union's 27 nations, according to estimates published in the journal Annals of Oncology.
The number of people dying from cancer has risen since 2009, the last year for which there is complete World Health Organisation mortality data.
But the overall cancer death rate - the number of cancer deaths per 100,000 citizens - has actually dropped over the same period, falling by six per cent among men and four per cent among women.
Despite that decline, lung cancer death rates have increased by seven per cent among European women since 2009, while breast cancer rates continue to fall, the researchers found.
The study's authors predict that there will be nearly 89,000 breast cancer deaths, or 14.6 per 100,000 women, in 2013, compared with just over 82,500 lung cancer deaths - the equivalent to 14 deaths per 100,000 women.
Deaths from breast cancer have been declining steadily, with a seven per cent fall in rates since 2009 in the EU.
Professor Carlo La Vecchia, head of the Department of Epidemiology at the Mario Negri Institute and lead author of the study, said if the trend continues then by 2015, lung cancer will overtake breast cancer as the leading European cause of cancer death.
That has already happened in the UK, which has the highest female lung cancer death rates in Europe, with 21.2 per 100,000 women dying from the disease.
Since fewer young women today are taking up smoking in the UK and the rest of Europe, the lung cancer death rate may start to level off after 2020 at around 15 per 100,000 women.
Professor Fabio Levi, from the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine in Switzerland, said: "The key message for EU national governments from this study is tobacco control, particularly among middle-aged men and women - the European generations most heavily exposed to smoking.
"If more people could be helped and encouraged to give up smoking, or not to take it up in the first place, hundreds of thousands of deaths from cancer could be avoided each year in Europe."
Sarah Williams, Cancer Research UK's health information officer, said that it was encouraging to see that overall the rate of people dying from cancer in Europe is predicted to continue falling.
She said that this reflects improvements in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and shows that through research we are making inroads against the disease.
"But deaths from lung cancer in women are still rising, reflecting smoking rates in previous decades, so sadly most of these deaths were avoidable. These figures underline the importance of reducing the number of people who smoke - both through helping smokers to quit and by introducing plain, standardised packaging to give young people one less reason to start.
"Every year 157,000 children in the UK alone, start smoking. We must try to stem that tide," she added.
Copyright Press Association 2013