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Leading on Cancer: Why the next UK Government must set out a new strategy for cancer

Imogen Brown
by Imogen Powell Brown | Analysis

19 June 2024

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A health professional holding a patient's hand in hospital
Shutterstock/Namomooyim

A new report from Cancer Research UK, Leading on Cancer, sets out the evidence on the role that cancer control strategies can play in improving cancer outcomes, outlining how strategies can be most effective in their design and implementation.  


We’ve made huge progress on cancer in the last 50 years. More people are surviving cancer than ever before, with survival for all cancers combined in the UK doubling since the early 1970s. And we’re in a golden age of cancer research and innovation, with research happening today that has the potential to transform cancer care.  

We also know there are significant challenges facing people affected by cancer today and in the future. Nearly 1 in 2 of us will get cancer in our lifetime, and cancer services in England are struggling to keep up with demand. We know that improvements in cancer survival have slowed in the last decade, and the challenge is growing – the number of cancer cases in the UK each year is expected to rise to around half a million by 2040 . 

Despite these challenges, we have a huge opportunity to improve cancer outcomes for people in England. We already know what needs to be done to progress on improving cancer outcomes; preventing more cancers, diagnosing more cancers at an earlier stage, rolling out proven interventions that would improve diagnosis and treatment, and addressing inequalities in cancer incidence and outcomes. 

If we’re to tackle the challenges facing cancer patients today, seize the opportunities in the future and transform outcomes for everyone affected by cancer, we need the next UK Government to rise to the challenge and show bold leadership. 

A cancer plan for everyone 

We believe the next UK Government should tackle those challenges head on by committing to a dedicated cancer plan for England. A strategy would serve as a vehicle for delivering the actions that we know are needed to speed up improvements in survival, offering an integrated approach to improving outcomes across cancer prevention, research and care.  

And the public agrees. Almost 8 in 10 people in England think the UK Government needs to develop a long-term and fully funded plan specifically for canceri 

That is why we have published a new report, Leading on Cancer, building on our Manifesto and Programme for Government, Longer Better Lives. This report looks at what the evidence shows about the principles behind successful cancer planning. It sets out why England needs a 10-year strategy for cancer and a bolstered national governance structure, a National Cancer Council, to hold leaders accountable for delivering on key actions and outcomes. 

Cancer planning works  

When dedicated cancer strategies are robustly developed and effectively implemented in the UK, they have played a vital role in driving efforts and impact towards improving cancer research and care. For example, the 2000 Cancer Plan for England marked a renewed political ambition for improving cancer outcomes. It set ambitious targets across research, cancer prevention, and cancer care, and was supported by a significant funding settlementii. The plan was crucial in accelerating cancer outcomes in England, with the National Audit Office finding that the strategy had supported progress in most aspects of the patient experienceiii 

International evidence shows that comparable countries that have consistent cancer plans in place have experienced the greatest improvements in survivaliv (Figure 1). Countries such as Denmark have raced ahead of England in improving survival in recent decades. This can be linked to a series of cancer strategies that successively and strategically built on the previous over a 20-year period to tackle some of the most pertinent issues facing cancer services in Denmarkiv.

Graph showing the differences in 5-year net survival between the UK and the highest performing International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership countries, 2010-2014
Figure 1: Differences in 5-year net survival between the UK and the highest performing International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership countries, 2010-2014

Effective cancer planning in Denmark

An International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (ICBP) study has suggested that over the past 20 years, the countries that have shown consistency and quality in planning have experienced the greatest improvements in cancer survival. Denmark, which had similar survival to England at the start of the study, greatly increased survival in some cancers, surpassing the progress seen in Englandiv.

This can be linked to a series of 4 cancer strategies, which successively and strategically built on the previous strategy between 2000 and 2020 to tackle some of the most pertinent issues facing cancer services in Denmarkv. Over the course of this 20-year period, Denmark experienced accelerated improvements in diagnosis and treatment capacityiv,v. The planning process cemented a strong coalition of the actors needed to improve cancer outcomes, which supported work between different health system levels with patient organisations and health professionalsv. This was underpinned by enduring political and public momentum for the success of each planv 

What do we want to see from a new cancer strategy? 

We need to see a dedicated strategy for cancer from the next UK Government, that sets out real and lasting change across all aspects of cancer prevention, research and care. However, it’ll only be successful if it delivers on the key principles of effective cancer planning and leadership set out in today’s report (Figure 2). 

Graphic highlighting the tests for a new cancer strategy
Figure 2: Our tests for a new cancer strategy

A comprehensive strategy provides an opportunity to identify and focus on the areas most pertinent to improving cancer outcomes across the UK, guided by the latest evidence from patients, clinicians, academics, and public health experts.  

A new strategy for cancer must be long-term. This enables the Government to set out measures that can increase productivity and improve efficiency, to deliver sustained reform to cancer research and care. This could include preparing health systems for upcoming innovations by providing sufficient staff training and the required IT infrastructure and equipment to deliver new, potentially time-saving technologies. A long-term strategy can further help prepare services for a growing and ageing population, and initiate a shift from treating ill health to preventing more cancer cases in the first place.  

Long-term planning ensures that funding for cancer transformation is consistently delivered across multiple years. For example, the rollout of Community Diagnostic Centres (CDCs) has the potential to boost cancer diagnosis and get England on track to meet targets for increasing physical capacity for testing. However, the full potential of this ambitious programme risks being held back by an outdated digital infrastructure and a lack of staff to operate new CDCsvi. Greater long-term planning for cancer can help support the delivery of such interventions over multiple years, cognisant of revenue resources needed within the existing health system to support implementation.  

Bringing together actors from across Government to deliver for cancer 

Clarity of purpose from the very top of governments can build momentum behind a cancer strategy, including by making cancer a political priority for several government departments.  Progress in improving cancer outcomes is dependent on governance structures, policy change and investment from across Government. Including departments responsible for accelerating cancer research efforts through to departments working to improve population health and preventing more cancers.  

An effective strategy for cancer should consider how it can be delivered across multiple departments and delivery partners and determine how the plan can work in conjunction with the wider activities of these bodies. Meanwhile, evidence shows that cross-government working is most successful when it is supported by national organisational structures that work to maintain collaboration between departments over timevii. 

That is why we are calling for a new National Cancer Council, which would be chaired by the Prime Minister and would join up multiple departments in Government along with representatives of NHS England, public research funders and expert advisors, including those across the third sector. The National Cancer Council could build momentum behind the plan, holding delivery partners accountable for actions across its lifespan and ensuring that the necessary investment is delivered. This can also support robust and independent evaluation measures, to facilitate ongoing learning and build transparency on progress against the strategy’s commitments.  

All political parties must commit to lead on cancer  

With an election weeks away, political parties have the opportunity to show bold leadership on cancer. In England, the next UK Government should commit to setting out a 10-year strategy for cancer and creating a dedicated leadership structure, a National Cancer Council. 

The time to act is now. Our manifesto Longer, Better, Lives details the policies that, if enacted by the UK Government, could help prevent 20,000 cancer deaths every year by 2040. We are calling on all political parties to back this ambition and make this election a turning point for cancer.  

With political will and the right strategy of reform and investment, we can deliver the solutions for the long-term problems facing cancer patients today. With that, we can elevate UK cancer survival to amongst the best in the world and help everyone lead longer, better lives free from the fear of cancer. 

i – Cancer Research UK. Public Opinion Polling Survey: Key Findings from June 2023. Published in Cancer Research UK. 2023. Longer Better Lives: A programme for UK Government for cancer research and care. Accessed March 2024 via https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/sites/default/files/cruk_programme.pdf 

ii – Richards, M. et al. 2018. Health Foundation. Unfinished business: An assessment of the national approach to improving cancer services in England 1995–2015. Accessed March 2024 at https://www.health.org.uk/ publications/unfinished-business

iii – The National Audit Office. 2005. The NHS Cancer Plan: A Progress Report. Accessed March 2024 at https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2005/03/0405343es.pdf 

iv – Nolte, E. et al. 2022. Exploring the link between cancer policies and cancer survival: a comparison of International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership countries. The Lancet Oncology 23:11. Accessed March 2024 at https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(22)00450-8/abstract

v – Triantafillou. P. 2022. ‘Cancer Treatment Policy in Denmark’ in de la Porte. C, and others (eds), Successful Public Policy in the Nordic Countries: Cases, Lessons, Challenges. Accessed June 2024 via https://academic.oup.com/book/44441/chapter/376662600 

vi – The Royal College of Radiologists. 2024. CDCs unveiled: challenges and triumphs. Accessed June 2024 via  https://www.rcr.ac.uk/news-policy/policy-reports-initiatives/representing-your-voice-in-uk-parliaments/cdcs-unveiled-challenges-and-triumphs/ 

vii – The Institute for Government. 2020. How to improve collaboration across government. Accessed June 2024 via https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/improve_collaboration_across_government.pdf  

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