Cancer epidemiology and demographics

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Epidemiology and Demographics

The risk of cancer rises with age

Cancer epidemiology is the study of the incidence of cancer as a way to infer possible trends and causes. The first such cause of cancer was identified by British surgeon Percivall Pott, who discovered in 1775 that cancer of the scrotum was a common disease among chimney sweeps. The work of other individual physicians led to various insights, but when physicians started working together they could make firmer conclusions.

A founding paper of this discipline was the work of Janet Lane-Claypon, who published a comparative study in 1926 of 500 breast cancer cases and 500 control patients of the same background and lifestyle for the British Ministry of Health. Her ground-breaking work on cancer epidemiology was carried on by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill, who published "Lung Cancer and Other Causes of Death In Relation to Smoking. A Second Report on the Mortality of British Doctors" followed in 1956 (otherwise known as the British doctors study). Richard Doll left the London Medical Research Center (MRC), to start the Oxford unit for Cancer epidemiology in 1968. With the use of computers, the unit was the first to compile large amounts of cancer data. Modern epidemiological methods are closely linked to current concepts of disease and public health policy. Over the past 50 years, great efforts have been spent on gathering data across medical practise, hospital, provincial, state, and even country boundaries, as a way to study the interdependence of environmental and cultural factors on cancer incidence.

Cancer epidemiology must contend with problems of lead time bias and length time bias. Lead time bias is the concept that early diagnosis may artificially inflate the survival statistics of a cancer, without really improving the natural history of the disease. Length bias is the concept that slower growing, more indolent tumors are more likely to be diagnosed by screening tests, but improvements in diagnosing more cases of indolent cancer may not translate into better patient outcomes after the implementation of screening programs. A similar epidemiological concern is overdiagnosis, the tendency of screening tests to diagnose diseases that may not actually impact the patient's longevity. This problem especially applies to prostate cancer and PSA screening.[1]

Some cancer researchers have argued that negative cancer clinical trials lack sufficient statistical power to discover a benefit to treatment. This may be due to fewer patients enrolled in the study than originally planned.[2]

State and regional cancer registries are organizations that abstract clinical data about cancer from patient medical records. These institutions provide information to state and national public health groups to help track trends in cancer diagnosis and treatment. One of the largest and most important cancer registries is SEER, administered by the US Federal government.[3] Health information privacy concerns have led to the restricted use of cancer registry data in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs [4][5][6] and other institutions.[7]

In some Western countries, such as the USA, and the UK[8] cancer is overtaking cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death. In many Third World countries cancer incidence (insofar as this can be measured) appears much lower, most likely because of the higher death rates due to infectious disease or injury. With the increased control over malaria and tuberculosis in some Third World countries, incidence of cancer is expected to rise; this is termed the epidemiologic transition in epidemiological terminology.

Cancer epidemiology closely mirrors risk factor spread in various countries. Hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) is rare in the West but is the main cancer in China and neighbouring countries, most likely due to the endemic presence of hepatitis B and aflatoxin in that population. Similarly, with tobacco smoking becoming more common in various Third World countries, lung cancer incidence has increased in a parallel fashion.


  1. Brawley OW (2004). "Prostate cancer screening: clinical applications and challenges". Urol. Oncol. 22 (4): 353–7. doi:10.1016/j.urolonc.2004.04.014. PMID 15283896.
  2. Bedard PL, Krzyzanowska MK, Pintilie M, Tannock IF (2007). "Statistical power of negative randomized controlled trials presented at American Society for Clinical Oncology annual meetings". J. Clin. Oncol. 25 (23): 3482–7. doi:10.1200/JCO.2007.11.3670. PMID 17687153.
  3. "SEER Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results". Retrieved 2007-11-02.
  4. Furlow, B, Accuracy of US cancer surveillance under threat Lancet Oncology 2007; 8:762-763. Retrieved 2007-11-01.
  5. VA Cancer Data Blockade May Imperil Surveillance (31 August 2007). Medpage Today. Retrieved 2007-11-01.
  6. States and V.A. at Odds on Cancer Data (10 October 2007). New York Times. Retrieved 2007-11-01.
  7. Negative Impact of HIPAA on Population-Based Cancer Registry Research: Update of a Brief Survey (14 June 2007). IOM Presentation. Retrieved 2007-11-01.
  8. Cancer: Number one killer (9 November 2000). BBC News online. Retrieved 2005-01-29.

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