NZ fourth in world in rate of cancer

New Zealanders have the fourth-highest cancer rate in the world, but a third could be prevented with healthier lifestyles, new figures show.

Tables compiled by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) reveal New Zealand has about 309 people diagnosed with cancer annually for every 100,000 people.

This rate was slightly lower than Australia (314), Ireland (317) and Denmark (326).

New Zealand women had the second-highest rates of cancer in the world at 287 new cases a year per 100,000 women, second only to Denmark. New Zealand men were diagnosed at a rate of 338 per 100,000, putting them eighth on the list.

The rates were age adjusted, which meant that for each country researchers looked at what the rate would be if that country had the same age profile as the world population.

The league tables showed that high-income countries generally had significantly higher cancer rates than lower income ones. This was explained partly by richer countries being better at diagnosing and recording new cases of cancer.

However, a large part was put down to high income countries, such as New Zealand, having higher levels of obesity and alcohol consumption, and lower levels of physical activity.

WCRF medical and scientific adviser Professor Martin Wiseman said there was strong scientific evidence that these factors increased the risk of several cancers.

Scientists estimated that about a third of the most common cancers in high-income countries could be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, being more physically active and eating more healthily. However, the trend around the world was in the other direction as people were becoming more overweight and less active. Stopping smoking and avoiding sunburn were also important.

OECD data shows New Zealand has the third-highest rates of obesity in the world at 27 per cent of the population.

Clinical endocrinologist and Fight the Obesity Epidemic spokeswoman Dr Robyn Toomath said enzymes in fat-activated hormones promoted the growth of cancer cells.

"People don't think about cancer as being something that they can modify through nutrition. But it's very important that people begin to grasp this – particularly governments," she said. "We have to start doing things differently than what we do at the moment, which is just beating up on obese people."

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the rise in use of screening programmes resulted in increased cancer diagnosis. The Government had introduced a bowel screening programme to catch cancer earlier.

The Sunsmart programme was aimed at the country's high rates of melanoma and the Government was targeting smoking – the single biggest preventable cause of cancer death – by increasing the tobacco tax and boosting funds for cessation.

Brian Cox, the Otago University Hugh Adam Cancer Epidemiology Unit director, said New Zealand's position on the league tables was a major concern.

"There's not sufficient focus on prevention. I think we can do a lot better than that."

The Cancer Control Council, which advised the minister, did not have a current action plan, he said.

The Press