Cancer is a disease caused by normal cells changing so that they grow in an uncontrolled way. The uncontrolled growth causes a lump called a tumour to form. Tumours can cause problems by invading normal tissues, spreading around the body or by pressing on other body structures. There are hundreds of different types of cancer. Our organs are made up of different types of cells, each of which can give rise to a different type of cancer. Several changes to the genes in our cells are needed before a cell becomes cancerous. The longer we live, the more time there is for us to accumulate changes in our cells.

The cause of cancer is dependent on a combination of factors. In other words, there is no single cause for any one type of cancer. Factors which cause a particular type of cancer may not be linked to the development of other types. These factors may include age, diet, genetics, viruses, and environmental exposures such as: tobacco smoke, asbestos, sunlight and radiation.

Each year in the UK, more than a quarter of a million people are diagnosed with cancer. The four commonest cancers are breast, lung, bowel and prostate cancer. These make up over half of all cases. Doctors estimate that more than one in three of us will get some form of cancer at some point in our lives.1 Mortality rates from cancer have decreased since 1990 by 25% for men and 18% for women.2

  1. Sasieni PD, Shelton J, Ormiston-Smith N, Thomson CS, Silcocks PB
    What is the lifetime risk of developing cancer?: The effect of adjusting for multiple primaries. doi:10.1038/bjc.2011.250
  2. Cancer Research UK – Mortality UK [Online 11/11/2010] Available from URL:
Images from the NHS Photo Library


Age-standardised incidence rates, all cancers excluding non melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) and mortality rates for all cancers, GB, 1971-2008
Cancer Research UK – Mortality UK [Online 11/11/2010] Available from URL:

Age-standardised mortality, all cancers, by sex, UK, 1971-2008
Cancer Research UK – Mortality UK [Online 11/11/2010] Available from URL:


  • The Cancer e-Atlas
    This is an interactive web-based resource developed to improve access to cancer statistics across England. It aims to provide health care professionals, commissioners, health service managers and the public with information on incidence, mortality and survival for the common types of cancers in men and women.
  • UK Cancer Information Service (UKCIS)
    UKCIS is a national web-based reporting tool, running across the NHS national network, providing the user access to cancer information for their area. To use the UKCIS you must be registered and connected to the NHS network.
    UKCIS currently includes: Cancer incidence, mortality and survival analyses for both local government and health geographies, Individual and common groupings of all cancer sites, Numbers and crude rates, Age-standardised rates and Age-sex profiles.
  • GP Practice Cancer Profiles
    These profiles from the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) bring together a range of outcomes and process information relevant to cancer in primary care. They provide readily available and comparative information for benchmarking and reviewing variations at a General Practice level. This initiative supports the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative to improve early diagnosis of cancer and outcomes for cancer patients.
  • West Midlands Local Authority Cancer Profiles 2010
    Produced by the West Midlands Cancer Intelligence Unit these profiles give a statistics on incidence, mortality and survival for the four most common cancers in the West Midlands - breast, prostate, lung and bowel - using the latest data available.
  • Mortality Monitoring Bulletin (Life expectancy and all-age-all-cause mortality, and mortality from selected causes, overall and inequalities): update to include data for 2009
    The latest annual update on mortality rates, with data updated to 2007-09. These statistics were released on 28 October 2010 according to the arrangements approved by the UK Statistics Authority. Three-year averages are shown for life expectancy, and three-year average mortality rates for all causes of death, and selected specific causes of death. The specific causes of death includes cancer for ages under 75, mortality figures for England are compared to the former Spearhead Group (i.e. areas which had the worst health and deprivation).
Publication and policy documents from DH and elsewhere

  • Improving outcomes: a strategy for cancer
    This publication translates the underpinning principles of the Coalition Government’s reforms of the health and care services into the steps needed to take to drive improvements in cancer outcomes. Improving Outcomes – A Strategy for Cancer, sets out how the Government, NHS and public can prevent cancer, improve the quality and efficiency of cancer services and move towards achieving outcomes which rival the best in Europe. The public, patients and their carers will be put at the heart of cancer services and clinicians will be empowered to deliver services of the highest quality.
  • Review of the Cancer Reform Strategy
    Ministers have asked for a review on the Cancer Reform Strategy (CRS) in order to ensure that we have the right strategy, subject to the Spending Review, and to deliver improved survival rates.
    Significant progress has been made on cancer since the publication of the Calman-Hine report in 1995, with the NHS Cancer Plan (2000) and the Cancer Reform Strategy (2007) contributing to this progress. Cancer mortality has fallen, survival rates are improving for many cancers and patients' experience of their care has improved. The Coalition Government now want to concentrate on what is most important to patients and their families – cancer outcomes.
  • Cancer Reform Strategy
    The Cancer Reform Strategy builds on the progress made since the publication of the NHS Cancer Plan in 2000 and sets a clear direction for cancer services for the next five years. It shows how by 2012 our cancer services can and should become among the best in the world.
    Note that this document has now been superseded by "Improving outcomes: a strategy for cancer".
  • Getting it right for people with cancer
    This report by the National Cancer Director outlines how services are being configured to meet the needs of cancer patients.
  • NICE Cancer Guidance
    The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is an independent organisation responsible for providing national guidance on promoting good health and preventing and treating ill health. Its guidance includes recommendations on cancer services, clinical guidelines and technical appraisals.
Links to important organisation(s)

  • West Midlands Cancer Intelligence Unit
    A population based registry for the West Midlands region, which also includes the West Midlands breast, cervical and bowel screening quality assurance reference centres. Additionally, the WMCIU also hosts the regional Health Geographical Information Systems Service. Publications are available from their website and they also offer an information request service.
  • National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN)
    NCIN brings together cancer registries, clinical champions, health service researchers and a range of other interested parties (including the Office for National Statistics; National Clinical Audit Support Programme; NHS Information Centre) under the auspices of the National Cancer Research Institute. NCIN promotes efficient and effective data collection throughout the cancer journey, provides a common national repository for cancer datasets, and expert analyses to monitor cancer care, audit, research programmes and improve outcomes.
  • United Kingdom and Ireland Association of Cancer Registries (UKIACR)
    The UKIACR brings together organisations with an interest in developing cancer registration as a resource for studying and controlling cancer in the UK and Ireland.
  • Cancer Research UK
    A leading cancer charity. Their website contains useful information about cancer and its treatment, cancer research and statistics.
  • National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI)
    The NCRI is a UK-wide partnership between the government, charity and industry which promotes co-operation in cancer research among the 21 member organisations for the benefit of patients, the public and the scientific community.
  • Cancer charities and other cancer related organisations
    Details of cancer charities can be found by searching this online directory using “cancer” as a keyword.