Cancer in the Netherlands: more occurrences, but higher chance of survival

Cancer: it’s sneaky, insidious, and can affect anyone at any time. Despite the Netherlands focus on cycling and access to quality healthcare, the Dutch continue to have some of the highest cancer rates in the EU.

The Netherlands had the second-highest rates of cancer in 2015, with over 30 per cent of all deaths being attributed to a form of the disease. The EU’s average was just over 24 per cent.

Meanwhile, the number of cancer cases in the Netherlands has continued to increase, with 118,000 new cases last year. That’s double the amount compared to 1990. However, cancer survival rates have been on the increase.

So what’s the most common type of cancer in the Netherlands? What’s caused a rise in cancer cases? And what are the chances of survival? We’re doing a deep dive into cancer in the Netherlands to figure out what’s been happening.

Why are cancer cases increasing in the Netherlands?

In five years, the number of cancer patients in the Netherlands increased by 13,000, according to the latest figures from the Integrated Cancer Center the Netherlands (IKNL).

Special professor Valery Lemmens told AD that the rise can be attributed to an ageing population. “This increase is due to population growth and the ageing population because people at an older age have a higher risk of cancer.”

The actual number of cancer diagnoses is much higher than the figures above. Those with relatively harmless skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma aren’t counted in an effort to compare different types of cancer better. However, those patients numbered about 50,000 last year alone.

What types of cancer afflict people in the Netherlands the most?

Cancer remains a broad umbrella term for a variety of things that can go wrong in the body. At a base level, it refers to a disease that comes from changes at a cellular level, causing uncontrolled growth and division of cells.

For the Netherlands, the most common cancer is skin cancer, followed by breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer.

Skin cancer in the Netherlands

Skin cancer continues to be the biggest culprit when it comes to adding to cancer cases in the Netherlands. More than half of all cases of cancer in the Netherlands are skin cancer.

Why, given the Netherlands cloudy climate, is skin cancer the biggest issue? Well, the clouds could actually be more of an encouragement than a hinderance, with Dutchies instead looking towards sunbeds to get their desired tanned skin.

Interior of a sunbed. Image: Whatsername/Flickr

Sunbeds: a good tan or a substantial health risk?

Peter Huijgens, who is the former chairman of the country’s cancer research institute, considers sunbeds to be a strong factor in the explosion of skin cancer cases, and even advocates for their ban.

His opinion is backed by European research done on the topic, which found that regularly using a tanning bed increases the risk of skin cancer from 16 to 20%. Marlies Wakkee, a biologist at Erasmus MC, has stated that the risk of skin cancer increases to 40% if a person regularly tans in a sunbed when they are under the age of 35. That makes sunbeds a whole lot less appealing to us.

Political controversy over sunbeds

Dutch Minister of Health, Hugo de Jonge, declared last year that he regularly uses tanning beds. Peter Huijgens considers this a highly controversial statement, given the new research and statistics showing the upward trend of skin cancer in the Netherlands. He gives the Minister as an example of a great advertisement for not using tanning beds.

“A brown-burned minister is a bad example,” Huijgens told AD. “That is the best advertisement for not using a sunbed.”

Huijgens would like to see a government campaign that encourages people to not glamourise tans. For example, complimenting people on their tans when they return from a holiday would be discouraged. (That’s okay, we know it’s probably all Instagram filters anyway, right?)

Breast cancer in the Netherlands

Breast cancer is the second-highest contributor to cancer rates in the Netherlands. Approximately 15,000 women in the Netherlands are diagnosed with the disease every year. Men are not immune either, with around 120 diagnoses each year.

Of 16,209 new cases in 2018, one in five succumbed to the affliction, according to WHO statistics. Approximately one in eight women in the Netherlands will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, says the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.

In an effort to catch cases early, the Dutch government offers screening for women between the ages of 50 and 75 once every two years. During this process, mammography of the breast is completed. Early detection is particularly important, because it can lead to a better prognosis, less invasive treatment options, and increases the chance of survival.

Prostate cancer in the Netherlands

For men in the Netherlands, the most common cancer is in the prostate. Thanks to early-testing for prostate cancer many men are diagnosed early, Lemmens told AD. “But there are also men who may need to be treated unnecessarily for prostate cancer because their tumor is growing slowly or has few or no symptoms.”

Colon cancer in the Netherlands

There were 13,000 people were diagnosed with colon cancer in 2019. However, the rates for this cancer have significantly dropped in recent years.

The reduction is largely thanks to a colon cancer screening program, introduced in 2014. As people continue to be tested, more polyps that could have caused cancer are detected early and removed before becoming a problem.

Cancer survival rates in the Netherlands increasing

The good news is that overall there is a greater chance of surviving cancer in the Netherlands than in the past.

Survival rates from the Dutch Cancer Registry show that around 90 per cent of patients with breast cancer, skin cancer, or prostate cancer are still alive after five years. While survival rates in 1990 were just 43 per cent, that has since raised to 65 per cent. This is partially due to early diagnosis, but also thanks to new targeted treatments like immunotherapy.

Once patients pass the five-year mark, the chance of cancer coming back is relatively small. It’s estimated that the chance of making it to the five-year mark is increasing by around one per cent a year – that’s very good.

For all types of cancer, two in three patients are still alive after that five-year mark. However, for more rare forms of cancer, the prospect of survival hasn’t changed much over time.

Patients with stomach cancer or bladder cancer have hardly increased their chance of survival. If someone is unlucky enough to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer their survival rate is less than five per cent.

Do you have a story you want to share about cancer in the Netherlands? Do you think that sun beds should be banned to reduce the risk of skin cancer? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Feature Image: Vidal Balielo/Pexels
We teamed up for this article! Co-written by Vlad Moco-Grama and Samantha Dixon. 

Vlad Moca-Grama
Vlad Moca-Grama
Vlad was born and raised in Brasov, Romania and came to the Hague to study. When he isn't spending time missing mountains or complaining about the lack of urban exploration locations in the Netherlands, you can find him writing at Dutch Review.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related posts

Latest posts

Going abroad? These international trains will NOT be running on Monday

Public transport strikes are going international! As the NS announced on Thursday, there will be no trains between the Netherlands and Germany on Monday....

Rotterdam is turning into an art festival during ICAF 2023

After three years, the world’s biggest International Community Art Festival is back with its ninth edition! Under the theme of “The Sound of Change,”...

These are the 10 most popular Dutch cities for a day trip (and they might surprise you)

When asked which city in the Netherlands they would like to visit for a weekend, the Dutch had an overwhelmingly clear answer: Maastricht.  We know...

It's happening

Upcoming events

The latest Dutch news.
In your inbox.