Ageing baby boomers may cause big spike in cases here over next decade, say experts
EVERY two hours, someone in Singapore dies of cancer. Over the next decade, it is going to get even worse. As baby boomers age, oncologists warn of an impending surge in cancer cases here. Baby boomers are those born in the years after World War II. They will be in their 60s this decade. “Cancers typically develop in older people,” said Dr Robert Lim, a senior consultant at the National University Cancer Institute.
A person’s risk of cancer starts creeping up from the age of 40, and takes a sharp upward swing by the time he is in his 60s. One in three of those aged 70 or older will get some form of cancer - colorectal, breast and lung being the most common. Dr Yap Swee Peng, a radiation oncologist at the National Cancer Centre, added: “Baby boomers, who form the bulk of the population, have just hit cancer bearing
age - so you can expect cancer numbers to increase.” The National University Hospital’s cancer institute will have a new building ready by 2013, and is already recruiting more cancer specialists in anticipation of the surge in cases. It is not all bad news, however. There are now reliable screening tools for colorectal and breast cancer, two of the most common, as well as cervical cancer. Detected early, survival rates for these cancers are extremely good. If more people start going for screening early so that cancers are caught sooner, say doctors, it could reduce the need for expensive treatments and reduce a lot of suffering that end-stage cancer brings.
The latest figures show that in 2008, more than 10,316 people were diagnosed with cancer - the first time the 10,000 mark has been crossed. That year, more than 4,300 died of the disease. Changes in the types of cancers afflicting people here also have also contributed to the increase, the specialists say. Professor Chia Kee Seng, head of epidemiology and public health at the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said cancers in men started to fall in the 1990s following the anti-smoking campaigns that have cut lung cancer rates.
But the trend did a U-turn recently with the rapid rise of colorectal cancer, which has overtaken lung cancer as the top cancer for men in the last decade. Another cancer that has surged to the fore is prostate cancer. Dr Yap said prostate cancer was rare in the past. Now it is the third most common cancer for men. Both colorectal and prostate cancer typically strike later in life, so they have become more common as the population ages. They are considered cancers of developed countries, where richer diets and longer life expectancies mean different cancers are become more prominent.
Dr Yap added that for women, cervical cancer - which can now be largely prevented with a vaccine - is on the decline. Endometrial cancer, or cancer of the womb lining, is on the rise as fewer women have babies. The biggest threat to women remains breast cancer, which accounts for 30 per cent of all cancers in women here.To encourage screening for colorectal and breast cancer, the Government will allow the use of Medisave to screen for these two cancers from July. According to the Health Ministry, this should help 450,000 women in the high-risk 50 to 69 age group check for breast cancer.
Last year, only slightly more than 52,000 people underwent colonoscopies. These include people who were being screened for the cancer as well as those suspected to have the disease.
Both Dr Yap and Dr Lim stressed the importance of early screening. Breast, cervical and colorectal cancers are “preventable” in that they can be caught when still localised and can be surgically removed. Then there are cancers where a person could greatly reduce his risk by changing his lifestyle, said Dr Yap. These changes include not smoking, to help prevent lung cancer.
Unfortunately, the doctors said many patients are still discovering their cancers late - giving them a poorer chance of problem-free survival. Dr Lim attributes this to a combination of factors, such as denial, fear of diagnosis and the fact that symptoms often appear only when the cancer is already in the advanced stage.