29 Apr 2014

Cancer survival dramatically improves – for some cancers

Half of all people diagnosed with cancer today will still be alive in 10 years’ time, according to a new analysis of more than 7 million people diagnosed with cancer in England and Wales since the 1970s.

Cancer Research UK looked at how improvements in diagnosis and treatment of many forms of cancer have radically improved survival over the last 40 years.

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The study finds that in 1971, 50 per cent of patients with all types of cancer could, on average, expect to survive just one year. By 2005, that had risen to five years – and overall survival has doubled since then.

The greatest improvements in 10-year survival rates were in breast (now 78 per cent) and testicular cancer (now 98 per cent). The greatest improvement was in the skin cancer malignant melanoma, with survival rising from 46 per cent in 1971 to 89 per cent in 2011.

“For some types of cancer survival has improved dramatically since the 1970s,” said Professor Michel Coleman from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who led the study. “These are huge successes.”

But the research only brings together average survival data for all types of cancer in all age groups. And for some cancer types survival has barely improved at all.

Only 1 per cent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can expect to live more than 10 years. For lung cancer, 10-year survival is still only 5 per cent — little different from the 1970s. Despite improvements, stomach, brain and oesophageal cancer are still very deadly.

Part of the reason for the disparity is biological. Cancer of the pancreas, for example, rarely causes any ill effects until it is very advanced, making early diagnosis very hard. But it’s also because research priorities and funding have been unevenly applied in the past.

Based on the new analysis, Cancer Research UK, one of the world’s leading cancer charities, said today it will now be re-focusing research spending to give more priority to these quite common cancers with poor survival.

The charity will be investing £50m a year into new research awards, as well as funding for academic researchers studying less survivable cancers.

Because the new headline number, “50 per cent survival after 10 years”, doesn’t apply to any one individual or type of cancer, it’s reasonable to ask what use it is.

But according to Dr Harpal Kumar, CEO of Cancer Research UK, positive messages about cancer, can in fact help improve survival because early diagnosis is so important.

“As little as 15 years ago we used to think of cancer as a death sentence as something that wasn’t treatable,” he said. “The problem with that was  people wouldn’t go a talk to their GP about symptoms, they wouldn’t believe that they could be successfully treated.”

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