It does sometimes seem that cancer is everywhere. A small part of that observation is likely related to the situation of buying a new car and suddenly seeing a zillion of them on the road. When cancer becomes an important issue in your life, you see and hear about it in a different way. A larger reason, however, has to do with the very large incidence of cancer, especially in an aging population. When we used to die frequently from childbirth or small pox or infections, people rarely lived long enough to get cancer. Now we do.
Cancer and heart disease are the two big killers of the developed world, and they are both mostly diseases of aging. I know, I know. There surely are young people, children even, who are diagnosed with cancer, but, if you look at the numbers, the statistics are clear that the incidence is much higher in people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.
This is an interesting essay from The New York Times about this:
Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer
By GEORGE JOHNSON
EVERY New Year when the government publishes its Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, it is
followed by a familiar lament. We are losing the war against cancer.
Half a century ago, the story goes, a person was far more likely to die from heart disease. Now cancer is on
the verge of overtaking it as the No. 1 cause of death.
Troubling as this sounds, the comparison is unfair. Cancer is, by far, the harder problem — a condition
deeply ingrained in the nature of evolution and multicellular life. Given that obstacle, cancer researchers are
fighting and even winning smaller battles: reducing the death toll from childhood cancers and preventing —
and sometimes curing — cancers that strike people in their prime. But when it comes to diseases of the
elderly, there can be no decisive victory. This is, in the end, a zero-sum game.
The rhetoric about the war on cancer implies that with enough money and determination, science might
reduce cancer mortality as dramatically as it has with other leading killers — one more notch in medicine’s
belt. But what, then, would we die from? Heart disease and cancer are primarily diseases of aging. Fewer
people succumbing to one means more people living long enough to die from the other.
The newest cancer report, which came out in mid-December, put the best possible face on things. If one
accounts for the advancing age of the population — with the graying of the baby boomers, death itself is on
the rise — cancer mortality has actually been decreasing bit by bit in recent decades. But the decline has
been modest compared with other threats.