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The importance of understanding and forecasting cancer trends

Nearly 9,000 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer each year in the UK and estimates suggest that this type of cancer has become more and more common over the last 40 years.



“We can advise patients at high risk about how they might change their behaviour – Dr Judith Offman, School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences 

King’s researchers have analysed data from 220,000 cases of cancer in the oesophagus (food pipe) between 1970 and 2013 in order to gain an understanding of trends for the two different types of cancer that can be found in the oesophagus – squamous cell carcinoma (which affects the top of the food pipe) and adenocarcinoma (which affects the bottom, near the stomach).

An understanding of the trends shown by this data is vital to allow a better understanding of the changing risk factors as well as a more accurate approach to the planning of health services and resource. The findings showed a five-fold increase in adenocarcinoma between 1972 and 2012 and a decrease in the number of squamous cell carcinoma over the same period.

Researchers hypothesise that the introduction of new medication to treat heartburn in the 1990s is at least partially responsible for the reduction in new diagnoses of adenocarcinomas. They predict that the annual number of newly diagnosed adenocarcinomas will become stable and the number of squamous cell carcinomas will decrease over the next 20 years.

Dr Judith Offman from the School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences at King’s said: “By better understanding behaviours or drug treatments that increase or decrease cancer risk, we can advise patients at high risk about how they might change their behaviour or advise them on treatments to reduce their risk of developing cancer. 

“This information can also provide an evidence base by which health services can more effectively plan the use of their resources and, ultimately, improve the care of patients.” 

The researchers pieced together patient data in order to build a complete picture of the type of cancer (squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma) even where this was not recorded. They also used advanced statistical models to better understand the impact of risk factors that were specific to different patients’ years of birth. Further studies by the team will examine this in more detail to try and better understand the factors that increase and decrease the risk of each type of oesophageal cancer.

The team is also studying how to detect pre-cancerous changes to the cells in the oesophagus so that health professionals may be able to intervene either prevent cancer or diagnose cancers early for the maximum chance of successful treatment.