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World Cancer Day 2024: Improvements in cancer survival have slowed

Imogen Brown
by Imogen Powell Brown | Analysis

2 February 2024

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We’ve made huge progress on cancer in the last 50 years.  

Thanks to lifesaving research into cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, survival for all cancers combined in the UK has doubled since the early 1970s.  

But concerning results from a new analysis commissioned by Cancer Research UK* shows that the progress we’re making has slowed down in the last 10 years compared to previous decades.  

Ahead of World Cancer Day on Sunday, our Cancer in the UK: Overview 2024 report sets out just how much that improvement has slowed, how cancer services are performing right across the UK, and why cancer is still the defining health issue of our time.   

Improvements in cancer survival have slowed in recent years

We’ll start with the good news: more people are surviving their cancer today than ever before.  

In 2018, half (50%) of people diagnosed with cancer in the UK were expected to survive their disease for 10 years or more, compared to around a quarter (24%) in the early 1970s.  

However, this new analysis suggests that this progress has slowed.  

Survival increased three to five times faster between 1970 and 2000, compared to the improvement since 2010. Meanwhile, cancer survival for common cancers in the UK consistently lags behind comparable countries. 

A graph showing the trends in the index of 10-year survival for all cancers combined, adults, England and Wales, 1971-2018

But what’s driving this slowdown, and what can we do to transform cancer care in the coming years?  

Let’s take a closer look at the rest of the cancer pathway to see if we can get some answers. 

Preventing more cancers

We need to shift from treating ill health to preventing more cancer cases in this first place.  

When around 4 in 10 cancers in the UK are preventable, it is vital that measures are introduced to take action on the key risk factors for cancer. This will provide benefits not only for the people who will avoid a cancer diagnosis, but it will also help boost the economy and reduce pressure on health services. 

The UK Government has made a vital step towards Smokefree UK in committing to legislation to raise the age of sale of tobacco, which would make it be an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone born on or after 1 January 2009.  

With tobacco being the biggest cause of cancer and death in the UK, it is vital that this legislation is fully implemented across the UK.  

Meanwhile, more action needs to be taken to address overweight and obesity across the UK. We want to see the UK Government implement the 2022 legislation on TV and online advertising restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) within a year of a general election.  

Improving cancer services  

Cancer services across the UK are struggling to meet demand for cancer diagnosis and treatment, resulting in patients experiencing some of the worst waits on record.  

With more people being referred for suspected cancer than ever before, and the number of new cancer cases per year in the UK rising, it is essential that services have the necessary investment in diagnostic equipment and the NHS workforce.  

A graph showing the performance against the 62-day standards in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and suspected cancer pathway in Wales

Diagnosing cancer at earlier stages

Governments must make concerted efforts to ensure more people are diagnosed at earlier stages when they are more likely to survive their cancer.  

In England, currently only around 54% of cancers with a known stage are diagnosed early (stages 1 and 2), and we are not on track to meet NHS England’s ambition for 75% of cancers to be diagnosed early by 2028.  

Screening can help prevent cancers developing as well as detect cancers at an early stage, and it is estimated that in the UK over 5,000 lives are saved by the cancer screening programmes each year.  

However, screening participation varies across population groups, and in recent years there has been an overall decline in the uptake of breast and cervical screening.  

We need to take action to tackle barriers to participation and to ensure everyone eligible who wants to take up the offer of cancer screening can do so.  

Moreover, timely help-seeking can increase chances of an early diagnosis. But currently, although people recognise many common cancer symptoms, too many don’t contact a doctor if they experience them.  

Governments across the UK should make a commitment to sustained, multi-year funding for public awareness campaigns that promote positive health behaviours.  

Accelerating improvements in survival rates through research  

Much of the progress we have seen in cancer survival in the UK since the 1970s can be attributed to developments in research.  

If we are to speed up improvements in survival, we must cement the UK’s position as a world leader in cancer research. But this will require the next UK Government to exhibit strong political leadership by setting out funding for cancer research over the next decade, including a plan to close the more than £1bn funding gap.  

In addition, more should be done to translate research into real-world applications, through strengthening clinical research environments within health systems and ensuring that the latest innovations reach patients quickly.  

Our ambition for the next UK Government

With hard won progress in recent decades at risk of stalling, today’s report provides a stark reminder for why it’s more important than ever that cancer is a top priority for all UK political parties ahead of this year’s general election.  

The challenges facing cancer are significant and complex, but we know what needs to be done to address them.  

In November 2023, we published Longer, better lives which sets out how the next UK Government can deliver for cancer, with the overall ambition of avoiding 20,000 cancer deaths per year by 2040. 

“Cancer survival in the UK is at the highest point it’s ever been, which shows that together, we’re making progress on beating cancer,” says Michelle Mitchell, our chief executive. 

“It’s worrying that the rate of improvement has slowed in recent years though, and cancer patients today face anxious and historically long waits for tests and treatments.   

“Almost one in two people across the UK will get cancer in their lifetime. The number of new cases each year is growing. Beating cancer requires real political leadership and must be a priority for all political parties ahead of a General Election.”   

With real political will, investment and reform, we can deliver long-term solutions to the long-term problems facing cancer research and care and help everyone lead longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer. 

 *The analysis was commissioned by the charity from the Cancer Survival Group at London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) 

    Comments

  • Janet Caroline Foster
    7 February 2024

    Its worrying to hear that getting appointments and treatments are not decreasing. When mine was detected approximately 15 years ago it was operated on very quickly then checked yearly for 10 years. This put my mind at rest knowing the consultants were monitoring it. We must try to ensure that patients seeking help are re-assured and seen quickly enough and diagnoses confirmed or not before the cancer gets a stronger hold.

  • Duncan Cameron
    4 February 2024

    Clearly great effort for earlier diagnosis here in Sussex, previous efforts didn’t make too much headway. If GPs can organise early checks, would be useful and patients encouraged to present earlier. Always encouraged to hear of research and its break throughs.

  • Clare Phillips
    4 February 2024

    I often think about the 50% who don’t get cancer. What does this statistic hide? If we controlled for known factors such as genes, age and smoking if it possible to say what else protects people? I worry that many environmental factors are not being properly researched. And I may be wrong.

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Read our comment policy.

    Comments

  • Janet Caroline Foster
    7 February 2024

    Its worrying to hear that getting appointments and treatments are not decreasing. When mine was detected approximately 15 years ago it was operated on very quickly then checked yearly for 10 years. This put my mind at rest knowing the consultants were monitoring it. We must try to ensure that patients seeking help are re-assured and seen quickly enough and diagnoses confirmed or not before the cancer gets a stronger hold.

  • Duncan Cameron
    4 February 2024

    Clearly great effort for earlier diagnosis here in Sussex, previous efforts didn’t make too much headway. If GPs can organise early checks, would be useful and patients encouraged to present earlier. Always encouraged to hear of research and its break throughs.

  • Clare Phillips
    4 February 2024

    I often think about the 50% who don’t get cancer. What does this statistic hide? If we controlled for known factors such as genes, age and smoking if it possible to say what else protects people? I worry that many environmental factors are not being properly researched. And I may be wrong.

Tell us what you think

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read our comment policy.