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Reactions: cancer deaths will decrease this year in Europe, but lung cancer deaths in women will rise in Spain

Un estudio ha estimado las muertes por cáncer que se producirán en la Unión Europea y el Reino Unido en 2023. Comparándolas con las observadas en 2018, estiman que se reducirán en un 6,5 % en hombres y un 3,7 % en mujeres de forma global. Sin embargo, en España aumentará la mortalidad por cáncer de pulmón en mujeres. Los resultados se publican en la revista Annals of Oncology. 

06/03/2023 - 12:38 CET
Tobacco and lung cancer

Deaths from lung cancer will continue to increase in Spain in women / Pexels (Lil Artsy)

Expert reactions

Cáncer UE - Pollán (UE)

Marina Pollán

Director of the National Epidemiology Center, a center belonging to the Carlos III Health Institute

The study uses mortality data contributed by countries to the WHO database up to 2018. The models used are adequate, although it is not a work of great originality. What they show regarding lung cancer is a known phenomenon and easily visible here in Spain in the interactive mortality server of the National Epidemiology Center, ARIADNA.  

I imagine that, as is the case in our country, in the other countries included in the study there are more current data (here we have real mortality information up to the year 2021) with which the predictions would have less margin of error. The prediction models are more inaccurate the further you extend them forward in time, here they have been extended by five years and in some of the countries by more, as in the case of Italy and France.  

The value of the study is to show the reduction in mortality for most of the tumor sites, also translating it into the number of deaths in the main countries of the European Union and the United Kingdom. Mortality is a complex indicator, because it depends on the frequency of the disease - the main cause of the increase in lung cancer mortality, associated with the epidemic of smoking in women, which has occurred much later than in men - but also on the effect of improvements in early diagnosis and treatment. Overall, therefore, the article shows the success in the fight against these tumors on different fronts and is a wake-up call for the two tumors whose mortality is increasing in women [lung and pancreas].  

Although advances in early diagnosis and better treatments can help in lung cancer, the fight against this tumor, the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, requires, above all, reinforcing efforts to eliminate tobacco consumption, a measure that would also help to reduce the incidence of pancreatic cancer and other tumors and other highly prevalent chronic diseases. The increase in mortality from pancreatic cancer could in part reflect improvements in diagnostic capacity. This is the most lethal tumor for which, as the authors acknowledge, there is still some way to go to improve early diagnosis and treatment.


The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest

Cáncer UE - Bustelo (EN)

Xosé R. Bustelo

CSIC research professor, scientific director of the Cancer Research Centre, Salamanca, and former president of ASEICA

Science Media Centre Spain

This is a good quality study. It is based on population data obtained - segregated by age range - from information on deaths stored at the World Health Organization by epidemiologists and oncologists from Italian, American and Swiss institutions. 

It reflects previous trends already collected in previous years. I believe that what is important is what it emphasizes: the importance of certain social habits in the incidence of some types of cancer, such as smoking or poor eating habits and the lack of physical exercise that lead to obesity. And, in the case of Spain, this message is clear: it is one of the few countries where it is predicted that deaths from lung cancer will increase in women in age groups that are consistent with the frequency of women smokers. This, perhaps, is the main message: there are many causes of cancer that we cannot avoid, since they arise from genetic errors in our cells that are generally associated with age, but there are many others that are avoidable, such as smoking. The campaigns being carried out by scientific oncological and patient associations on the importance of increasing restrictions on tobacco use are relevant here; only in this way will we be able to significantly lower the rates of occurrence of some cancers.  

But there is also a positive message, which has already been seen in recent years: despite higher rates of aging, global cancer deaths continue to decline. This is probably influenced by factors such as improved diagnosis times and the increase in the arsenal of antitumor drugs that have been developed over the last few decades. This aspect is not trivial; it implies that a large number of deaths have been avoided thanks to these improvements. And it also suggests that, if this global trend continues, it is foreseeable that we will indeed achieve the medium-term goal of reducing cancer deaths in the European Union by more than 35%.  

In the end, the message of the article is clear: if you want to avoid certain types of cancer, don't smoke, drink less alcohol and avoid obesity. 

There is one factor here that remains to be assessed, as the authors of the study rightly point out: the influence of the coronavirus pandemic that led to significant delays in the screening, diagnosis and care of new cancer patients. This may be a factor that could tip the balance towards more negative percentages in the short term.


The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest

Cáncer UE - Borràs (EN)

Josep Maria Borràs

Scientific coordinator of the National Health System Cancer Strategy and director of the Catalan Oncology Plan.

Science Media Centre Spain

The group of authors of the study is well known and respected, and publishes annually this type of mortality projection and analysis exercises. The work uses a well-established methodology.  

The main novelty with respect to Spain is the increase in lung cancer mortality in women in a context of declining cancer mortality in general. The reason is the increase in tobacco consumption in women observed between the 70s and 90s of the last century, a period in which the increase in the onset of smoking in young women was very marked and which, in fact, was on a par with the onset of smoking in men. We are seeing the consequences 30 years later.  

Now this increase has stabilized and shows a downward trend, so we can expect that in the coming years the observed trend will change in the direction of reducing lung mortality.  

In summary, the observed trend is due to smoking trends. 

The paper estimates its projections on the basis of observed trends and they are subject to error. However, the projection period is short and, therefore, this error is minor.


The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest

Eduard Teixidor y Rafael Marcos muertes cáncer Europa España EN

Eduard Teixidor

Assistant doctor of medical oncology at the Catalan Institute of Oncology and at the Girona University Hospital Doctor Josep Trueta

Rafael Marcos Gragera

Epidemiologist at the Girona Cancer Epidemiology and Registry Unit of the Catalan Institute of Oncology - Oncology Master Plan

Science Media Centre Spain

The presented study seems to be a good review and analysis of available mortality data from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Such studies are useful and necessary to assess the long-term control of chronic diseases.   

Despite the subjective feeling we have on the street, the trend in cancer mortality is decreasing. Although in absolute values one would say that mortality is increasing, when adjusted for the characteristics of the current population (mainly age), the graphs show a decrease in mortality as described in this study.    

In Spain, lung cancer is the second cancer with the highest incidence in men and the third in women, and it is the first in number of cancer deaths in both sexes combined.   

With regard to the gender differences in lung cancer mortality, although not surprising, it is interesting to note once again that in southern European countries lung cancer mortality in women is increasing while the trend in men continues to decrease. This translates into a higher number of deaths than initially expected in women and a reduction in men.     

Smoking is most likely the main factor behind this. Tobacco use is the leading cause of lung cancer worldwide, and the risk is related to both the intensity and duration of smoking. Tobacco use has also been associated with the development of 14 other tumour types so far. Other risk factors for this disease include exposure to indoor radon and occupation.   

In Spain in particular, the differences in the evolution of smoking prevalence between the sexes are reflected in the mortality attributed to smoking, which has a downward trend in men and is currently still increasing in women. In addition, the increase in the burden of lung cancer mortality attributed to tobacco use in women is noteworthy, from 12.3% of total smoking-attributed mortality in the period 1990-2003 to 21% between 2004-2018. In men, smoking has been declining since the 1980s, when prevalence figures in 1987 were 55.1 %; in women, prevalence figures started to decline much more recently, in 2001, when 27.3 % of Spanish women smoked.     

On the other hand, the feasibility of screening programmes (early detection) for lung cancer has been discussed in recent years. The recommendations contained in the European Strategy Against Cancer (2022) and the update of the 2003 European recommendations approved in 2022 maintain the convenience of population screening for breast cancer, colorectal cancer and cervical cancer, while mentioning the convenience of studying and carrying out pilot studies that contribute to clarifying questions that are still unresolved with regard to the implementation of new cancer screening programmes for the early diagnosis of lung cancer, prostate cancer and stomach cancer.     

The early detection of lung cancer requires a CT scan, but there is still uncertainty about the frequency with which this test should be performed, and about the protocols that should be followed when certain lesions are diagnosed. For this reason, different pilot projects are being carried out in Spain to evaluate certain technical aspects of the protocols that should be established. In addition, the feasibility of including this screening in the National Health System's service portfolio must be studied in detail, establishing the technical and human resources that would be necessary for its development.   

Compared with the cancer screenings currently included in the service portfolio of the Autonomous Communities (breast, cervical and colorectal), lung cancer is the only one that targets a disease 85 % of which is preventable if action is taken against tobacco consumption (its main risk factor), This highlights the need for action and implementation of the WHO's MPOWER strategy or even beyond, as proposed by the ENDGAME strategy, which aims to achieve a tobacco-free society.    

Working on interventions based on primary prevention of tobacco use makes the most sense, as it not only reduces the risk of lung cancer but also of other tumours, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases in both smokers and those exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. Therefore, strategies against this disease, which causes more than 25,000 deaths a year in Spain, should be prioritised by PUBLIC HEALTH actions aimed at preventing the initiation of tobacco consumption and encouraging smokers to quit. For ex-smokers, studies carried out in the United Kingdom have shown that it is possible to reduce the late stages of diagnosis with information campaigns for the population (Be aware on cancer).   

Taking into account the data published in this article, specifically for Spain, we must also highlight the decrease in mortality in men for all the tumours studied. Specifically, the decreases in mortality from pancreatic, lung and bladder cancer could be attributed to the decrease in the prevalence of smoking in men and, in general, to improvements in treatments (surgery, chemotherapy, target therapies and radiotherapy).    

In women, however, the news is not so good: an increase in mortality continues to be observed in tobacco-related tumours such as lung and pancreas. In contrast, we also observe a decrease in mortality in tumours with a high prevalence in women, such as breast and colon cancer, due in part to early detection programmes and improvements in treatment.   

Reviewing such a large amount of epidemiological data gives us the opportunity to generate hypotheses and then try to analyse possible influencing factors. Smoking cessation and health protection programmes, especially those related to smoking and occupational exposure, are helping to reduce mortality. Improvements in treatment are also expected to have a significant impact in the near future.   

Regarding the limitations of the study, the different tools for data collection should always be taken into account as a limitation when making cross-country comparisons. Another limitation, in terms of mortality projections, as described in the discussion, is that they could be affected by the influence of the COVID pandemic.   

It would be desirable in the future to be able to conduct this type of study at the EU level with incidence data. Analysing mortality data is useful, but it does not reflect the true impact of cancer on the population; it would be necessary to have incidence data that also includes information on those patients who survive cancer. In order to carry out incidence studies, it would be necessary to have an information system on cancer incidence that covers the entire Spanish population. At present, only 26% of the population in Spain is covered by population-based cancer registries.

The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest
European cancer mortality predictions for the year 2023 with focus on lung cancer
  • Research article
  • Peer reviewed
  • Observational study
  • People
Annals of Oncology

Malvezzi et al.

Study types:
  • Research article
  • Peer reviewed
  • Observational study
  • People
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