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Battling the big C

There is hardly a person in Ireland who hasn't been affected by cancer in one way or another, either by getting the disease themselves or knowing someone who has battled or succumbed to it. .

And there is a growing number of people in the public eye who are openly coping with the disease

The actor Pete Postlethwaite, who died at the start of the month, is just one on a roll-call of celebrities who have been diagnosed with cancer, from Michael Douglas to Kylie Minogue, Jennifer Saunders to Martina Navratilova, all of them proving that you don't have to be particularly old or living an unhealthy lifestyle to be unlucky enough to contract the disease.

According to statistics from Cancer Ireland, cancer will affect one in three people in this country. It is the second most common cause of death in Ireland, responsible for 25pc of all deaths each year. The latest data from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland (NCRI) indicates that there were 29,775 new cases of cancer diagnosed in 2009, with the Central Statistics Office (CSO) recording 8,585 deaths from the disease that year.

With Irish researchers expecting new cancer cases to reach more than 40,000 by the year 2020, it's surprising that Dr Harry Comber, director of the NCRI, says that the actual increase in cancer rates over the past two years is less than 1pc.

There are a variety of reasons why we're seeing more and more cancer, according to Dr Comber. "The population is ageing and increasing," he says. "If you take the two most common forms of the disease, breast cancer and prostate cancer, most of the increases that we're looking at is due to increased cancer screening."

However, Dr Comber does concede that other forms of cancer are on the increase because of the changes to modern lifestyles. Greater numbers of the population suffering from obesity are contributing to an increase in kidney cancer, while melanoma, or skin cancer, is on the up because more people with sensitive Irish skin are exposing themselves to the sun's harmful rays without adequate protection. The depletion of the ozone layer, caused by man-made chemicals is a factor in this, as is a lack of education and, to a lesser extent, the use of sunbeds.

"There's no single factor at all," says Dr Comber. "With different cancers there are different reasons."

One of these may be the enormous battery of chemicals modern man comes into contact with daily. In 2005 scientists from across Europe signed the Prague Declaration to express their concerns about everyday exposure to chemicals that contain hormones. "The incidence of cancers such as breast, testis, and prostate continues to increase in many European countries, although there are notable differences between countries . . . This shows that these cancers are linked to factors in the environment, including the diet."

However, Dr Comber and other cancer researchers are quick to point out that any such evidence is inconclusive. "There's nothing that anybody has identified that gives a significant cancer risk," he says. "Some of these things may make a small contribution to cancer but people who look at cancer prevention and risk wouldn't see chemicals or exposure to environmental pollutants as being very important factors in terms of cancer trends."

The one chemical Dr Comber does point out as potentially dangerous is radon, a colourless, odourless radioactive gas that percolates out of the ground and gets into our houses: "You get different levels of radon in different parts of the country depending on what the underlying rock formations are like. It's heavier than air so it tends to accumulate in ground floors, basements in houses and when it's inhaled it causes an increased risk of lung cancer, particularly in people who smoke.

"The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland provides a radon monitoring service. People can get a detector to use in their houses for a three-month period to gauge radon levels. If a house is ventilated, there is less radon. There's some research to suggest that radon builds up more in modern houses with double-glazing that are very airtight."

In the 1970s and 1980s, cancer was seen as a death sentence, with only five out of 10 women suffering from breast cancer surviving beyond five years. Now the figure is more like eight out of 10, while the survival rate for men with prostate cancer has risen from 30 to 75pc.

"The risk of dying from cancer is going down quite dramatically," says Dr Comber. "People are being diagnosed earlier, treatments like chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery are all much more effective than they used to be. Patients are generally in better health so they're more able to undergo surgery than would have been the case before."

The key to not having to undergo any of these treatments is education. The World Health Organisation, who estimate cancer rates to jump by 50pc by 2020, are calling on governments to stem the trend through public health action campaigns.

Cancer Ireland says that every individual should be looking at his or her lifestyle in terms of cancer risk and changing their behaviour accordingly. Healthy eating, physical activity, quitting smoking, moderate use of alcohol, protection against sun damage and early detection are all part of an equation that can dramatically reduce the risk of developing many cancers.

If you are concerned about or affected by cancer, please call the National Cancer Helpline on Freefone 1800 200 700 (open Monday to Thursday 9am-7pm and Fridays 9am-5pm)