Cancer has surpassed heart disease as the biggest killer in Australia, according to a new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The WHO's World Cancer Report found 8.2 million people died from cancer globally in 2012, including 40,000 Australians.

The report was last released six years ago and this is the first major international update on the disease since then.

It found that cancer surpassed heart disease as the world's biggest killer in 2011, with 7.87 million cancer deaths compared to 7.02 million from heart disease. Stroke was considered separately.

In Australia and other Western countries, the rise in cancer cases has been attributed to ageing populations and increased screening.

Lifestyle has also been highlighted as a major factor, with the population of countries such as Australia more likely to have a poor diet, inactive lifestyles and be smokers.

Doctors predict global cancer rates will increase by three-quarters over the next two decades and they expect 20 million new cases by 2025.

The report says 3.7 million cancer deaths could have been avoided by lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake and maintaining a healthy weight.

"About 5 per cent of all cancers is due to alcohol consumption - that's an important part of the preventable cancer story," said Cancer Council Australia's Terry Slevin.

"Let's make no bones about it, alcohol is a class one known carcinogen, it's listed by the World Health Organisation as such."

Research shows women's risk of breast cancer can increase by having as little as one alcoholic drink a day. For men, the risk of tumours increases with two to three drinks a day.

Lung cancer was the biggest killer globally. It was also the biggest killer among men, while breast cancer killed more women.

Mr Slevin said lung cancer was an area where treatments were less successful than other areas.

"That's why prevention, when it comes to lung cancer, is so important," he said.

Melanoma continued to be more of a problem in Australia than overseas, with Australians and New Zealanders twice as likely to be diagnosed than anywhere else in the world.

Worldwide there are more than 14 million cancer diagnoses each year, the report found, and it costs the world more than $1 trillion each year.

It says one-fifth of that could be avoided by investing in prevention strategies.

 

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