Cancer is now the number one killer in New Zealand. More than 23,000 people are diagnosed every year and that number keeps climbing, according to figures released by the Ministry of Health today.

The data showed that more than 9500 people died from cancer each year, representing 31 per cent of all deaths recorded in New Zealand.

Cancer Society medical director Dr Chris Jackson said the number of people affected by cancer was expected to increase by 50 per cent by 2035.

"If we don't act now, cancer could cripple our health system as well as continue to cause considerable pain and suffering for many New Zealanders," Jackson said.

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The most commonly registered cancers were breast (3292), colorectal (3150), prostate (3080), melanoma (2424) and lung (2189). These cancers accounted for six out of every 10 diagnosed.

Jackson said this was a league table that no one wants to lead.

Ministry of Health cancer service manager, Dawn Wilson, said New Zealand had a high standard of cancer treatment when compared internationally.

"A recent Australian study reported New Zealand is among the eight top performing countries for five year survival rates," Wilson said.

Jackson said that the rise in cancer numbers was predominately due to a growing ageing population.

"There is an overall global pattern towards an increasing rate of deaths from cancer.

"As a population ages there's an epidemiological shift towards diseases of Western lifestyle of which cancer is one of them so obesity, smoking alcohol consumptions are all contributors increasing rates of cancer." Jackson said.

Wilson said we can do better and the Ministry of Health was developing a specific strategy with the sector to deliver better outcomes for people with cancer.

"The Government's clear priority is to improve equity of health outcomes, especially for Māori and Pacific Peoples; and to have the whole health system working together more effectively to improve well-being," Wilson said.

Jackson said with more New Zealanders diagnosed with cancer than ever before and nearly one in three people dying from cancer, we need strong and bold action.

"Staying the same is going backwards and we need a 10-year cancer plan," he said.

This call to action comes just months after the release of the third international Concord study, which revealed that 2500 more New Zealanders would have survived cancer if they lived in Australia rather than New Zealand.

The Cancer Society supported the National Bowel Cancer Screening programme, and applauded efforts to reduce smoking rates, noting that the rates of many cancers have reduced with improved preventive measures.

Jackson said given that cancer now amounts to 31 per cent of all deaths, they'd like to see an increased investment from government to support for people with cancer.

"With more New Zealanders than ever before affected by cancer, and a system that delivers worse outcomes than Australia, we need to change our approach to cancer or things are only going to get worse."