Thousands dying needlessly from cancer in UK, report says

<span>Photograph: NHS England/PA</span>
Photograph: NHS England/PA

Thousands of people are dying needlessly from cancer because the UK lags behind comparable countries when it comes to survival rates, a damning report says.

Big strides forward have been made in treating the disease over the past 50 years, according to the study by Cancer Research UK, but slow and late diagnosis coupled with treatment delays mean the progress is “at risk of stalling”.

League tables drawn up by international researchers and cited by the charity show the UK has the worst survival rates in five out of seven forms of cancer compared with Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Ireland and New Zealand.

About 20,000 deaths could be avoided every year in the UK by 2040 if ministers adopted a bold new plan for the condition, Cancer Research UK said. A national cancer council accountable to the prime minster should also be created, it added.

The charity’s report called for more action to speed up diagnosis, get people treated quickly and recruit a further 16,000 full-time cancer staff by 2029.

The NHS has already set a target to diagnose 75% of cancers at the earliest stages of 1 or 2 by 2028 but the charity warned this would be missed.

The report said cancer was a “fixable problem”. Three decades ago the UK and Denmark were improving cancer outcomes at broadly the same rate but Denmark has “raced ahead, with consistent funding and long-term cancer strategies”.

It said: “Across the UK, cancer waiting times are being consistently missed, and some have not been met for over a decade. While they wait for diagnosis and treatment, patients and their families face an anxious and worrying time.

“Investment in prevention, NHS staff, equipment and facilities is needed to turn the tide.”

The report said the “inequalities in who gets and dies from cancer are stark, with more than 33,000 cases each year across the UK attributable to deprivation”.

Prof Sir Mike Richards, a former national cancer director at the Department of Health who now advises NHS England, told a briefing there was much work to do to improve survival rates.

“The late stage problem is a big one,” he said. “Nearly half of all patients with cancer are diagnosed at stage 3 and 4. They have poor prognosis compared to those in stage 1 and 2.

“We are not currently on target for the government’s target of 75% being diagnosed (at early stages) by 2028. There’s a lot we can do: we can improve our screening programmes, we can improve our diagnosis of symptomatic patients and we can reduce inequalities in treatment.”

On lung cancer, Richards said the NHS needed “more CT scanners, more radiographers, more radiologists, more thoracic surgeons”. While the Covid pandemic hit cancer targets overall, they were slipping even before then, he added.

In its report, Cancer Research UK said funding was needed to plug a £1bn gap in research over the next decade. It said the proportion of cancer research funded by the government was the lowest of any major condition, “while having among the highest cost of disease burden”.

The report also said four in 10 cancers in the UK were preventable, with thousands of cases caused by unhealthy lifestyles and smoking.

Cancer Research UK said that within a year of the next general election, ministers should have raised the age of sale of tobacco products and implemented the 2022 legislation on TV and online advertising restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said: “Cancer is the defining health issue of our time. Avoiding thousands of cancer deaths is possible but it will take leadership, political will, investment and reform.

“The impact of cancer is immense. We estimate that half a million people – friends, colleagues and loved ones – will be diagnosed with the disease every year by 2040. Their lives are at stake if we don’t act now.”