A STUDY JUST PUBLISHED in the British Medical Journal Oncology found that “early-onset cancer increased by 79.1% and the number of early-onset cancer deaths increased by 27.7% between 1990 and 2019.” You would think this should be a cause for alarm and that the disease is expanding into younger age groups. Not necessarily so because, sometimes, more accurate data can give a blurrier picture. Early-onset cancer is when it strikes those who are under 50 years of age. If their numbers are increasing, then before pressing the panic button also consider how many in 1990 would be checking for cancer before they turned 50. Unless it is a fast-acting one in which symptoms come soon, this can be a disease that lies hidden for a while.
Take breast cancer, which is one of the main ones that showed this trend in the study. Today, the probability of women in India from the lower middle class upwards to have a mammogram at some point before their 50s is high. They don’t need to plan it out. Doctors themselves are so much more aware to keep an eye out for breast cancer symptoms in the target group. Before 1990, it would often be at an advanced stage that the cancer would be detected. The rise in the number of detections now would in fact be saving much more lives than earlier. Likewise, prostate cancer, which is one of the slowest progressing forms. You just wouldn’t come to know of it for a long time.
Doctors are aware of how more cases have a correlation with more reporting. A Times of India report quoted Dr Devi Shetty, chairman of Narayana Health, commenting on the study that “increased awareness and availability of diagnostic tools is a key factor for rise in reported incidence of cancer in countries like India” even though he didn’t discount the contribution of environment factors, diet and lifestyle.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in crime statistics. When the National Crime Records Bureau publishes nationwide data, it seems like crime is on an upswing but that doesn’t account for people becoming more aware of their rights, and therefore insisting on cases being registered. Police all over India have a history of trying to create a good record for themselves, or taking bribes, by not showing crime, but it is getting harder to do so. Crimes against women, especially, are very difficult to hide because of civil society activism and these crimes are not increasing but only being registered more, which in turn leads to a decrease.
It is certain that there will be some cancers that are rising because of definite reasons. Those associated with cigarette and tobacco, for instance, will manifest now because even though smoking is less fashionable, earlier it was and the translation of that into cancer will come a few decades later. But on the whole, barring specific causes, mankind usually gets the upper hand of diseases like cancer. With time, we just get to know more about how they work and to counter them.