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Thousands surviving in the UK decades after diagnosis of cancer, but lung cancer and mesothelioma survival rates are still too low

06 January 2017

More than 170,000 people who were diagnosed with cancer up to 40 years ago are still alive, a report made by Macmillan Cancer Support has suggested.

Despite current advances however, the survival rates among lung and other hard to treat cancers remain extremely low, having hardly changed over the past four decades.

According to the report, called ‘Cancer Then and Now’, people are twice as likely to survive for at least a decade after being diagnosed with cancer as they were at the start of the 1970s.

It said that better treatments and diagnoses are among the reasons of the prolonged survival.

But cancer can leave a lasting legacy of side effects, such as depression and financial difficulties, the report also warned.

The report estimates that around a quarter of survivors will have long-term issues that need support. Around 625,000 people in the UK are currently suffering with depression after cancer treatment, Macmillan Cancer Support has said.

Greig Trout, who survived cancer at the age of 7 and again at 30, says that the worst part of his battle was after his second all-clear.

He says that he became gripped with anxiety, and the fear of the cancer coming back, or the fear that maybe it hadn’t gone.

“I felt guilty, angry at myself,” says Greig. “At times I was thinking ‘am I ungrateful for feeling this way after having survived when so many others don’t?”

Professor Jane Maher, chief medical officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “We now see fewer of the big side-effects, such as an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, we saw after treatment in the 1970s and 1980s.

“But some of the effects doctors still consider ‘small’, such as fatigue and poor bowel control, can have a profound impact on someone’s quality of life.”

“Sadly, there is no cancer treatment available at the moment that does not carry a risk of side-effects.”

The charity said that although the number of people surviving long-term with cancer is growing, more needs to be done to make sure that they get the right care.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the fact that more people were surviving cancer was “excellent news” and credited the work of NHS staff carrying out diagnosis, treatment and care to help patients.

“To help, we announced last year that by 2020 people diagnosed with cancer in England will benefit from an individually tailored recovery package,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Welsh government said that it welcomed the improvements, but a spokeswoman said: “The numbers of people experiencing cancer in their lifetime are increasing and this is set against a backdrop of increasing pressures on the NHS resources.”

Nell Berry, from Cancer Research UK, also stressed that it was important to continue focusing on world-leading science to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment, especially for the harder-to-treat cancers like lung, brain and pancreatic cancer.

Lung cancer survival rates

Despite all of these advances, survival rates among lung and other hard to treat cancers remain very low and have hardly changed over the past 30 – 40 years.

Currently, an astounding 73% of people only live for up to one year after a diagnosis of lung cancer, compared to 6% of people diagnosed with breast cancer and 12% of people diagnosed with prostate cancer. 69% and 55% of people diagnosed with breast cancer and prostate cancer survive for seven or more years, respectively, compared to only 5% of people diagnosed with lung cancer.

Over the next 30 years, it is believed that at 60,000 people will die from mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by breathing in harmful asbestos dust and fibres. There is no cure and more than 90% of people die within 3 years of diagnosis.

The UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world, and it is estimated that at least 2,500 people will die each year because of the disease, most of whom having been exposed to asbestos in the workplace.

Despite these statistics, mesothelioma research only receives a fraction of the funds invested in other cancers that kill a similar number of people, such as skin cancer.

These low survival rates are thought to be caused by lung cancer and mesothelioma often being caught too late, such as only being found after an emergency visit to the hospital, or because there is still a significant lack of effective treatment and research funding for the diseases.

Further reading

Macmillan’s “Cancer: Then and Now” report

British Lung Foundation – Mesothelioma research campaign

“Wasting GP’s time” is stopping people from reporting suspected cancer symptoms

House of Lords mesothelioma debate: Why is funding for mesothelioma so low?

Who is at risk of developing mesothelioma and is the lung cancer moving on to a different type of victim?

Experts warn variation in cancer diagnosis is “unacceptable”


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