The UK has some of the worst cancer survival rates in the developed world, according to new research.
Analysis of international data by the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce found that five-year survival rates for lung, liver, brain, oesophageal, pancreatic and stomach cancers in the UK are worse than in most comparable countries. On average, just 16% of UK patients live for five years with these cancers.
Out of 33 countries of comparable wealth and income levels, the UK ranks as low as 28th for five-year survival of both stomach and lung cancer, 26th for pancreatic cancer, 25th for brain cancer and 21st and 16th for liver and oesophageal cancers respectively.
The six cancers account for nearly half of all common cancer deaths in the UK and more than 90,000 people are diagnosed with one of them in Britain every year.
The taskforce calculated that if people with these cancers in the UK had the same prognosis as patients living in countries with the highest five-year survival rates – Korea, Belgium, the US, Australia and China – then more than 8,000 lives could be saved a year.
Anna Jewell, the chair of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce, said: “People diagnosed with a less survivable cancer are already fighting against the odds for survival. If we could bring the survivability of these cancers on level with the best-performing countries in the world then we could give valuable years to thousands of patients.
“If we’re going to see positive and meaningful change then all of the UK governments must commit to proactively investing in research and putting processes in place so we can speed up diagnosis and improve treatment options.”
In the UK, seven in 10 patients receive no treatment at all for pancreatic cancer and of the 10,000 people diagnosed annually, just 10% receive surgery. Similarly, in England only 65% of people with a cancerous brain tumour are treated by surgery, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy – the main potential treatments – in comparison with 85% of breast cancer patients.
Responding to the findings, Prof Pat Price, the chair of Radiotherapy UK and co-founder of the Catch Up With Cancer campaign, said: “The UK’s abysmal cancer survival rates, including less survivable cancers, add to a national catalogue of cancer care failure. The international evidence is clear: countries with a cancer plan see improved survival. Decisive action and investment through a cancer plan could quickly improve so many areas of cancer.
“It’s not enough to focus on the speed of diagnosis as a way forward. We need to boost treatment capacity too. A radical cancer plan holds the key to significant performance improvements and better survival rates. Anything less will see us continue rooted to the bottom of the cancer survival league tables.”
Mark Lawler, professor of digital health at Queen’s University Belfast and chair of Lancet Oncology’s European Groundshot cancer commission, said: “These results are extremely disappointing but unfortunately not unexpected. How can we achieve better outcomes for cancer if we don’t have a dedicated strategy?
“It goes against international best practice. Cancer policy consistency is demonstrably associated with better cancer outcomes. What’s needed as a matter of urgency is a detailed, standalone cancer strategy, focused on important issues like early diagnosis and better access to treatment and backed up by significant resources.
“It’s bad enough to have a less survivable cancer in the first place – its even worse when we are not achieving the best outcomes for these deadlier cancers. Implement a cancer strategy now – otherwise patients will continue to die unnecessarily.”
An NHS England spokesperson said that between 2005 and 2020, five-year survival rates for all cancers have increased by 8%. “Cancer survival has never been higher, and the NHS continues to accelerate new ways to improve survival rates for all cancers, including those which internationally have been hardest to detect and treat early,” they said.
“Catching cancers earlier saves lives, and our community lung health checks have now diagnosed over 3,000 cancers – three-quarters at stage 1 or 2, compared to a third historically.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Cancer is being diagnosed at an earlier stage, more often, with survival rates improving across almost all types of cancer, and the NHS has seen and treated record numbers of cancer patients over the past two years.”
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