By: Sarah Boseley
Dramatic improvements in cancer survival mean that half of those diagnosed today can expect to live for at least 10 years, according to the UK’s leading cancer research charity – although survival rates in the UK still lag behind those of comparable western European countries.
New figures show great progress in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer over the last four decades, but accelerating in recent years. In the 1970s, 50% of cancer patients were surviving for just one year and just a quarter lived for 10, said Cancer Research UK. By 2005-06, 50% were living for five years and 46% for 10.
Today, according to the most recent figures available (2010-11), 50% are predicted to live for at least 10 years.
The figures come from the cancer survival group funded by CRUK at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, led by Professor Michel Coleman. “These results come from detailed analysis of the survival of more than 7 million patients diagnosed in England and Wales since the 1970s,” he said. “They show just how far we’ve come in improving cancer survival, but they also shine a spotlight on areas where much more needs to be done.”
CRUK published the figures at the launch of what it described as an ambitious strategy to ensure that, in 20 years’ time, three-quarters of all those diagnosed survive for at least 10 years.
“We know more about cancer than we ever have before,” said Harpal Kumar, chief executive of CRUK. “We think the knowledge we have gained over the last 20 years puts us in a fantastic position to accelerate that progress. We want to see things move even faster from here on.
“We want three-quarters of people who hear those words, ‘you have cancer’ also to hear the words, ‘but don’t worry – you will be fine,'” he said.
The statistics show that some cancer patients have better prospects than others. Women with breast cancer now have a 78% chance of surviving for at least a decade – up from 40% in the 1970s.
Testicular cancer patients have a 98% chance of surviving for 10 years and the chances of patients with malignant melanoma have risen from 46% to 89% since the 1970s.
Others are not so fortunate. Only 1% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will survive for 10 years and only 5% of lung cancer patients. Ten-year survival in oesophageal cancer is 12% and for patients with brain tumours it is 13%.
Those four cancers will be a prime focus of CRUK’s efforts, said Kumar.
It has been known since the Eurocare study in 1995, carried out by Coleman’s group, that survival rates in the UK lag behind those of comparable western European countries, and the gap still exists because, while the UK has been improving, so have the others.
“There is not a single explanation that accounts for the difference,” said Coleman. His group did a detailed international benchmarking study comparing factors that could affect survival in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden with the UK, which was published in 2011. All had better survival than the UK except for Denmark.
“One [of the issues] is that cancer patients in Britain do tend to get diagnosed at a later stage than in other countries, but it was not true for all cancers,” he said.
However, in some cancers, survival in the UK was poorer at every stage, suggesting that investigation and treatment in the UK was not as good as elsewhere.
Coleman pointed out that investment in the health services and in technologies such as CT and MRI scans has been lower in the UK over the last 25 years than in comparable European countries. The differences were not about drugs, he said. For most of the major cancers, surgery to remove the tumour is the most important treatment.
CRUK’s new strategy includes ensuring all patients are diagnosed at the earliest possible moment, when treatment is more likely to be successful. It also wants to speed up the transition of new surgical techniques as well as drugs from the lab to the clinic. And it will continue to work on preventing cancer – particularly by campaigning against smoking. In cancer prevention, said Kumar, the single most important issue was tobacco control. “Roughly one fifth of the adult population is smoking in the UK,” he said. CRUK would like to see a largely tobacco-free society, he added.
CRUK plans to increase its spending on research by 50% over the next five to 10 years to support its 10-year strategy. One of the initiatives it plans to fund is a “grand challenge” scheme for researchers in academia and industry in the UK and overseas to find answers to the biggest outstanding questions in cancer.
It also hopes to harness the UK’s strength in engineering and physical sciences with multidisciplinary awards to scientists in those disciplines investigating new ways to prevent, diagnose or treat cancer.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.