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20,000 lives a year could be saved by 2040 ‘if Government adopts cancer plan’

Cancer Research UK has published a report calling for more action to speed up diagnosis (Lynne Cameron/PA)
Cancer Research UK has published a report calling for more action to speed up diagnosis (Lynne Cameron/PA)

Some 20,000 lives could be saved every year in the UK by 2040 if the Government adopts a bold new plan for cancer, experts have said.

Cancer Research UK has published a report calling for more action to speed up diagnosis, get people treated quickly and recruit 16,000 more full-time cancer staff by 2029.

The NHS has already set a target to diagnose 75% of cancers at the earliest stages of one or two by 2028 but experts have said this target will be missed.

Cancer Research UK is now calling for bolder action and the creation of a national cancer council accountable to the Prime Minister.

Cancer survival has doubled over the last 50 years but the UK still lags behind many other comparable countries when it comes to how long people live.

The report said cancer is a “fixable problem”, pointing out that 30 years ago England and Denmark were improving cancer outcomes at broadly the same rate but Denmark has now “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”.

Professor Sir Mike Richards, former national cancer director at the Department of Health, who now advises NHS England, told a briefing there is much work to do to improve diagnosis, treatment and survival.

He said: “Why do we have poor survival?

“Well, it is a combination, of course, of diagnosing people at a later stage of the disease and then inconsistencies in treatment.

“The late stage problem is a big one. Nearly half of all patients with cancer are diagnosed at stage three and four. They have poor prognosis compared to those in stage one and two.

“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 breast screening, Prof Richards said the UK “could be better”, with more women screened, while “a lot of progress” could also be made on diagnosing more bowel cancers.

He added: “We are currently as a country reducing the starting age of bowel screening but we haven’t yet got down to age 50, which is what we should be aiming for.”

He said there is also a “need to reduce the threshold at which people are sent on to have a colonoscopy” for bowel cancer.

The NHS has set the sensitivity threshold for the FIT stool test at 120ug/g (micrograms of blood per gram of faeces) in England but Prof Richards said “we should get it down to 80 and then frankly down lower than that”.

The lower the threshold, the more sensitive the test will be and the more cases of cancer can be picked up.

The FIT screening threshold is 80 µg/g in Scotland.

Prof Richards added: “Why are we not doing that? Colonoscopy capacity has been the rate-limiting factor. We are training more but, in addition to that, we need to triage patients so that the existing capacity is used to its maximum effect.”

On lung cancer, Prof Richards said the NHS needs “more CT scanners, more radiographers, more radiologists, more thoracic surgeons”.

While the Covid pandemic has hit cancer targets overall, they were slipping even before then, he added.

In its report, Cancer Research UK said funding is needed to plug the £1 billion gap in cancer research over the next decade.

It said the proportion of cancer research funded by the Government (versus charity) is the lowest of any major condition, “while having amongst the highest cost of disease burden”.

Elsewhere, the report looked at the four in 10 cancers that are 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 should implement the 2022 legislation on TV and online advertising restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Cancer Research UK 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.”

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 seeing and treating record numbers of cancer patients over the last two years.

“Our Major Conditions Strategy will set out how we will improve cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment and we have opened 135 community diagnostic centres offering over five million additional tests, including for cancer.

“Research and the life sciences are crucial in the fight against cancer, which is why we invest £1 billion per year through the National Institute for Health and Care Research and brokered new partnerships with BioNTech and Moderna which will enable patients in the NHS to be the first in the world to benefit from potential cancer vaccines.”