Why are rates of cancer different?

05 July 2016

Question

Why do countries with similar standards of living have different rates of cancer? There are two countries that I know well to be generally similar in standard of living, but are very different mainly in physical size and climate: Australia and Switzerland. But they have very different rates of cancer incidence - why are these rates so different for Australia and Switzerland, with approx. 4th and 15th global incidence rates respectively?

Answer

Chris Smith put this to fellow Naked Scientist Kat Arney...

Kat - Wow! I've got like 2 minutes to do this. Cancer is not just one disease. There are many different types of cancer. So there are different rates and different causes of cancers in different countries. Actually, it's really hard to know exactly what sorts of cancers happen in different countries and the rates because not all countries keep really good cancer statistics. In the UK, we have some of the best cancer statistics in the world about the different types of cancer we have. But broadly, we can see there are differences so for example, in China, in Asia, there's lower rates of certain types of cancers. In the west, in America, or in Europe, we have higher rates of things like breast cancer and bowel cancer. In Africa, there tend to be high rates of things like cervical cancer, cancers linked to infectious diseases. It's a very complex global picture. So it's better to kind of pick one type of cancer and look at it. but we do know there's a role for genetics. So for example, people of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage are particularly more likely to have certain types of inherited risk of cancer and diet also plays a role as well. So we do know that things like.

Chris - So you got a combination of the genes you're born with, environment you live in.

Kat - Your nature and your nurture, and how you go on through life as well.

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