Background: The 'lifetime risk' of cancer is generally estimated by combining current incidence rates with current all-cause mortality ('current probability' method) rather than by describing the experience of a birth cohort. As individuals may get more than one type of cancer, what is generally estimated is the average (mean) number of cancers over a lifetime. This is not the same as the probability of getting cancer.
Methods: We describe a method for estimating lifetime risk that corrects for the inclusion of multiple primary cancers in the incidence rates routinely published by cancer registries. The new method applies cancer incidence rates to the estimated probability of being alive without a previous cancer. The new method is illustrated using data from the Scottish Cancer Registry and is compared with 'gold-standard' estimates that use (unpublished) data on first primaries.
Results: The effect of this correction is to make the estimated 'lifetime risk' smaller. The new estimates are extremely similar to those obtained using incidence based on first primaries. The usual 'current probability' method considerably overestimates the lifetime risk of all cancers combined, although the correction for any single cancer site is minimal.
Conclusion: Estimation of the lifetime risk of cancer should either be based on first primaries or should use the new method.