More than a million lives saved from cancer since mid-1980s due to UK's medical advances

Cancer Research charity says better prevention, diagnosis and treatment have helped reduce death rate

Cancer Research UK spoke of the need to build on the 'fantastic progress from the last 40 years'. PA
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A golden era for medical research has helped save more than one million lives from cancer in Britain in the past four decades with progress in preventive measures, diagnosis and treatment.

Since the mid-1980s, UK cancer mortality rates have fallen by around a quarter after peaking in 1985 for men and 1989 for women, analysis by Cancer Research UK found.

It said if the rates of people dying from cancer had stayed the same, 1.2 million more lives would have been lost to the disease.

As a result of medical advances, the researchers say, more than half a million lives have been saved from lung cancer (560,000), with improvements in stomach (236,000), bowel (224,000), and breast (170,000) cancers.

These reductions are attributed to advancement in radiotherapy, public health campaigns raising awareness of the damage caused by smoking, better drugs to help fight the disease and the identification of cancer genes, which has led to the development of new medicine to combat them.

Despite the improvements, however, some cancers are continuing to rise and cancer remains the number one cause of death in the UK.

For several types, such as liver, head and neck, as well as womb cancer, the mortality rate is increasing.

The charity has doubled funding into hard-to-treat cancers, including lung and pancreatic, since 2014, but with an ageing population increasing pressure on the NHS, coupled with a lack of access to new tests and treatments, it warns there is a risk that survival could decline unless action is taken by governments across the UK.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK chief executive, said the situation was worrying.

“Thanks to research and progress, a huge number of people in the last 40 years have reached milestones in their lives they didn’t think they’d see and had more invaluable time with their loved ones," she said.

“The fact that over a million lives have been saved from cancer in this time reflects the power of research. Discoveries into more effective and kinder treatments, improvements to screening programmes and strategies to help detect and prevent cancer have all been essential to this.

“These trends show that together, we are beating cancer – and we couldn’t have made the breakthroughs that have changed people’s lives without the generosity of the British public.

"However, despite these hard-fought gains, the situation for people affected by cancer across the UK remains worrying. Long waiting times are leaving many people facing fear and uncertainty.

“Cancer is a fixable problem – with continued investment in cancer research, strong political leadership and the continued support of the public, we can build upon the fantastic progress from the last 40 years.”

Through their data analysis, the charity has found more men have been saved from cancer death compared to women and attributes this to smoking rates declining earlier among the male population.

It says the large drop in lung cancer cases is due to research it part-funded in the 1950s that first proved tobacco causes cancer.

Stomach cancer cases have also fallen substantially because H Pylori, a type of infection, is no longer common and breast cancer has been helped by the introduction of the national screening programme, as well the arrival of drugs such as tamoxifen and Herceptin, which Cancer Research UK helped to develop.

Bowel cancer deaths have also decreased due to progress in treatments for the disease, including a trial which discovered that giving patients chemotherapy before surgery helped to shrink tumours, making them easier to cut out.

Alan Sugden, 75, believes this trial helped save his life from bowel cancer.

“I think the trial definitely helped me. Having chemotherapy before my operation helped shrink my tumour which made it easier for the surgeon to remove.” he said.

“In the years since my cancer was treated, I’ve been able to reach milestones and make memories that I wasn’t sure would be possible when I was first diagnosed.”

'Golden era for cancer research'

Lead of the Personalised Breast Cancer Programme at the University of Cambridge, Prof Jean Abraham, said it was a "golden era" for cancer research.

“We’ve seen incredible progress in the way that we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer," she said.

“In my own field of personalising breast cancer treatments, we’re now able to complete genome sequencing from the lab to the clinic in a matter of days, when 10 years ago it would have taken months.

"This is a game-changer because we can now use a patient’s own unique genetic code to personalise their clinical management.

"This lets us evaluate exactly what treatments and surgery suits them best as an individual. We can also determine whether a patient’s family need screening for high-risk hereditary genes that cause cancer.

“But for all the progress we’ve made, there is so much more about cancer that we don’t know. That is why it’s crucial that we continue pioneering cancer research to save more lives.”

The new data has been released to coincide with the launch of Cancer Research UK's new advertising campaign, Together We Are Beating Cancer, which will be linking the charity’s scientific and research breakthroughs with what they mean for cancer patients and their families across the UK every day.

A new survey of more than 2,000 cancer survivors from YouGov, commissioned by Cancer Research UK, looked at the moments and milestones that mattered for patients.

It found that 41 per cent of the cancer survivors surveyed said that experiencing a particular milestone, life event or personal interaction became more important after their diagnosis.

The survey also found that 81 per cent of the cancer survivors who responded had positive emotions about their life in the future, in terms of feeling hopeful or happy.

Updated: August 31, 2023, 11:10 PM