Are Your Odds of Developing Cancer Really a 50/50 Chance?

Last year, the Canadian Cancer Society announced that nearly one in two Canadians will get cancer in their lifetime.

Cancer, grapefruit, Canadian cancer statisticsphoto credit: shutterstock

Although the odds are high when it comes to developing cancer, there’s more to Canadian cancer statistics than you may think…

Sandy Kruse’s daughter is the “one” in the scary stat that says one in two Canadians will get cancer in their lifetime. Sandy is the “two.” Kruse’s daughter was just five when a sarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer, was discovered in her arm. As her daughter went through treatment at Toronto’s SickKids hospital, Kruse endured the most stressful year of her life.

So when she developed a migraine with an aura in August 2011, she chalked it up to stress. But a doctor felt such intense headaches should be investigated. He ordered tests, which revealed that Kruse had five nodules growing on her thyroid. Further testing by an endocrinologist revealed that one of the five nodules was papillary carcinoma.

Because she had bilateral thyroid nodules, she underwent a thyroidectomy — the complete removal of the thyroid. “The surgery wasn’t that bad,” she said, though taking thyroid hormones to replace the lost gland was challenging. As she struggled with the right combination of thyroxine (T4), she had “zero energy, brain fog, fatigue and hair loss.”

Doctors experimented with the hormones and found a combo that worked. And Kruse changed her lifestyle, incorporating daily workouts and eating clean. Fast-forward seven years and both Kruse and her daughter are cancer-free. “I’ve changed how I eat, how I live,” says Kruse. “I’m a totally different person than I was.”

Related: This daily habit could reduce your risk by 20 percent.

How this disease is changing face

When the Canadian Cancer Society announced last spring that nearly one in two Canadians would get cancer in their lifetimes, it sent shock waves through the population. The report on Canadian cancer statistics revealed that men have a lifetime cancer risk of 49 percent, while Canadian women have a lifetime risk of 45 percent. Does this mean that stories like Kruse’s will become more commonplace? Does it mean that there is no sense in living a clean lifestyle?

The real story

Well, not so fast. In fact, there are explanations behind these alarming numbers that help reduce the panic. For one thing, the data reflected a change in methodology, which was new for 2017 — the result of extensive consultation with the society’s advisory committee. Previous analysis by the Canadian Cancer Society, The Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada had only focused on people who hadn’t yet developed this disease — the new data included cancer survivors, explains Dr. Leah Smith, senior manager, cancer surveillance at the Canadian Cancer Society.

Related: These 3 cancers are on the rise. Here’s how to protect yourself. 

Another big factor: Canada’s aging population

“The population is getting older,” says Dr. Smith. “[And] it’s important to understand that cancer is a disease of the aging.” As people live longer, they are at higher risk of cancer with each passing year. “Eighty-nine percent who are diagnosed are over 50,” she says.

Dr. Smith stresses that the “overall rates of cancer have not increased in Canada.” And that the 1-in-2 risk is comparable to the lifetime risk in countries such as Australia, the U.S. and the U.K.

Dr. Anthony Miller, professor emeritus at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, agrees that there’s no reason to sound alarm bells. “I don’t think it’s alarmist,” he says — it’s reality. “There’s been a reduction in heart disease,” he says, suggesting that if heart disease isn’t allowed to set in, cancer invariably will.

Dr. Miller says cancers are being increasingly diagnosed because they’re being discovered — the result of physicians prescribing more diagnostic tests. Tests often pick up incidental cancers, which may not have acted aggressively or spread. But because they have been found, and doctors can’t predict how they will behave, they are treated.

What’s encouraging, he says, is that survival of many patients is increasing, as they’re being found at earlier stages and treated with ever-evolving treatments.

The power of prevention also shouldn’t be underestimated. “There’s a lot we can do to prevent cancer,” says Dr. Smith, such as not smoking, eating healthy, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol. “Canadians need to act on this knowledge.”

Related: What a Canadian oncologist wants you to understand about this disease.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada