NHS ‘facing crisis’ on cancer care

The UKs cancer survival rate has doubled over the past 40 years. Picture: Ian RutherfordThe UKs cancer survival rate has doubled over the past 40 years. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The UKs cancer survival rate has doubled over the past 40 years. Picture: Ian Rutherford
One in two people will develop cancer at some time in their lives and the UK faces a “crisis” if the NHS does not plan ahead, according to the latest forecast.

There will “never be one single magic bullet” to cure all cancers, and age is the biggest risk factor for most forms of the disease.

The new figure, which replaces the previous figure of one in three, is the most accurate forecast to date from Cancer Research UK and is published in the British Journal of Cancer.

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The charity said it highlights the urgent need to bolster public health and NHS cancer services so they can cope with a growing and ageing population and the looming demands for better diagnostics, treatments and earlier diagnosis.

Prevention must also play a role in the effort required to reduce the impact of the disease in coming decades, the charity said.

The UK’s cancer survival rate has doubled over the past 40 years and around half of patients now survive the disease for more than ten years.

But as more people benefit from improved healthcare and longer life expectancy, the number of cancer cases is expected to rise.

This new research estimating lifetime risk replaces the previous figure, calculated using a different method, which predicted that more than one in three people would develop cancer at some point in their lives.

The charity said age is the biggest risk factor for most cancers, and the increase in lifetime risk is primarily because more people are surviving into old age, when cancer is more common.

The results show that people who were born in 1930 had a lifetime risk of just over one in three, but the risk has risen to one in two for those born in 1960.

The lifetime cancer risk for women (47.55 per cent) is lower than that of men (53.5 per cent), while the combined lifetime risk is 50.5 per cent.

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According to the previous method of calculation, in 1980 the combined risk was 27.2 per cent, in 1990 it was 32.7 per cent, in 2000 it was 37.1 per cent and in 2010 it was 41.8 per cent.

The charity believes that the old method of calculation underestimated the risk. Lifetime cancer risk is also expected to increase further in the future.

While the biggest risk factor is age, other lifestyle factors include smoking, obesity, diet, tanning and sunburn, overdiagnosis, lack of exercise and child-bearing patterns.

While male smoking rates are down, overall smoking rates in the UK are at 19 per cent, compared with 12 per cent in Australia.

Just over a quarter of all deaths are caused by cancer, so while one in two people will develop cancer at some point, it is still believed that around one in four people will die from cancer.

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re living longer and that means we’re more likely to develop a range of age-related health issues.

“We need to plan ahead to make sure the NHS is fit to cope. If the NHS doesn’t act and invest now, we will face a crisis in the future – with outcomes from cancer going backwards.”

He said “better planning and innovative design of services” are needed, adding: “We also need to ensure the health service is adequately funded if we’re to deal effectively with the growing burden of cancer and offer all patients the best chance of long term survival.”

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Asked how near a cure for cancer is, Mr Kumar said: “There will never be one single magic bullet that treats… cures all cancers. I just don’t… I cannot foresee a time when that’s going to be the case. But already we’re able to cure a number of cancers now.”

Mr Kumar said there are more than 200 types of cancers and they are all quite different.

“Once you break it down into those different diseases, we know that actually for some types of cancers we effectively do have a cure. So if you look at testicular cancer we’re up at survival rates in the high nineties now,” he said.

The single biggest thing that affects whether a patient is cured is whether their disease is caught early enough, Mr Kumar said.

“We know that too many cancers are diagnosed very late and once they’re more advanced it becomes much harder to cure. We can treat them, we can extend life but it becomes much harder to cure if we’re catching the cancers very late,” he added.