The rate of cancer-related fatalities has decreased steadily, dropping by 11 per cent in five years.
Experts say better tests and treatment for particular types of cancer mean people are less likely to be killed by the disease – but they warn that the incidence rate of cancer is increasing.
There were 247 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011, decreasing to 221 in 2016, which is the most recent data available, according to the statistical office of the European Union.
The latest statistics recorded by the Malta National Cancer Registry show that deaths by cancer in 2017 continued to decrease, down from 276.33 to 270.81.
The figures do not correlate precisely with Eurostat information since different considerations are taken when deducing the statistics.
According to Christian Scerri, from the Faculty of Medicine & Surgery, the drop in cancer-related fatalities in Malta is mainly due to a fall in the rates of deaths by breast cancer and leukemia. He explained the better survival rate of breast cancer patients was likely due to the benefits of the breast screening programme now entering its 10th year, “as early diagnosis is related to better survival”.
In addition, the breast unit at Mater Dei Hospital, a multidisciplinary team that met regularly to discuss cases and their treatment, ensured patients were closely followed up and any changes were identified early, he said.
Better-targeted treatment has also become available.
Regarding the drop in rates of death by leukemia, the improvement could be attributed to factors such as better drugs and treatment options as well as an increase in the number of clinical haematologists, Prof. Scerri continued.
However, while survival was improving, the incidence rate of cancer was rising, which was worrying, he said.
He attributed this partly to an ageing population but also to other factors such as obesity, smoking, alcohol, lack of exercise, diet and the presence of fine particles in the air (microparticles).
“So encouraging pedestrianisation and healthy forms of mobility, better diet education, reduction or strict control of polluting industries (in particular the building one) and cutting on the number of cars on the road would be a big step in reducing this incidence,” he warned.
Within the EU, the average number of deaths caused by cancer also fell steadily from 266 to 257 during 2011-2016, according to Eurostat.
The lowest rates of death by cancer among European Union member states were seen in the Mediterranean and Nordic countries. Cyprus recorded just 194 deaths per 100,000 people from cancer in 2016, followed by Finland (220), Malta (221), Sweden (229) and Spain (230).
With 345 deaths per 100,000 people, Hungary recorded the highest death rate, followed by Croatia (334), Slovakia (315) and Slovenia (309).
Prof. Scerri said that it was interesting to note that the smaller countries were the ones that tended to have lower cancer mortality rates.
“This is most probably due to more efficient health services, a higher physician to patient ratio as well as a closer relationship with the family physician and easier access to secondary and tertiary services,” he said.
In the whole of the European Union, cancer-related fatalities numbered 1.2 million in 2016, just over a quarter of all deaths.
Lung cancer was the most common form of the disease to claim lives, accounting for a fifth of all cancer deaths.
Colorectal cancer was the second most common fatal cancer (12 per cent), followed by breast, pancreatic and prostate.
Lung cancer was the main fatal form of cancer among men while breast cancer was the biggest killer of women.