Cancer: The Mid-life Killer

In the past week, two famous people died of cancer at a relatively ‘young’ age: David Bowie, 69, and Alan Rickman, also aged 69, which is about 5-7 years below the average male life expectancy in western countries. Of note, David Bowie had a long history of heart disease (being thin apparently didn’t help), nearly collapsing backstage in 2004 due to clogged arteries, but it was cancer that killed him, indicating that while much progress has been made in keeping people with chronic cardiovascular disease alive longer, progress for treating late-stage cancer has been more disappointing.

Mortality for heart disease has plunged in recent decades, but not so for cancer:

Heart failure may no longer be as deadly cancer.

MUNICH – Five-year survival of patients with heart failure has been dire, worse than for many cancers. But therapeutic advances in the last 2 decades mean that today, for the first time, that’s no longer true, according to a large Swedish study.

“Heart failure has become less malignant than the most common forms of cancer at the population level,” Simon Stewart, Ph.D., said at the annual congress of the European Society of Cardiology.

Indeed, while most cancer-related survival rates have improved substantially in Sweden, as elsewhere, during the last 2 decades – with the glaring exception of lung cancer – heart failure survival rates have increased at twice the pace.

“Heart failure survival rates are now equivalent to those for large bowel cancer,” added Dr. Stewart, head of preventive cardiology at the Baker Heart Research Institute, Melbourne.

Survival rates for many cancers have not improved in decades, although the overall trend is positive:

Cancer is the leading cause of death for middle-aged people, surpassing heart disease, suicides, and accidents:

Source: the CDC, deaths by age group for 2010.

Hence, the ‘mid-life’ killer. I’m sure we all know people who in the prime of their working years were suddenly struck by cancer, with treatments only prolonging survival by a couple years. Some live longer, but the average survival rate for stage IV cancer is still only a couple years, which David Bowie and Alan Rickman, in spite of the best medical care money could buy, were unable to exceed.