In years gone by, a patient diagnosed with cancer was likely to have only limited time left with their loved ones and friends.
The idea that a diagnosis of cancer was, in essence, a death sentence is changing, however, with a new study revealing that half of all cancer patients survive at least 10 years thanks to major advances in diagnoses and treatments.
As many as 50% of people with the illness today in the UK will survive their disease for a decade or more according to landmark figures published by Cancer Research UK.
In the North East, this means that around 7,300 people each year can now expect to live longer, while in the early 1970s just a quarter of people diagnosed in the country survived 10 years. Today, Cancer Research UK has set out its ambitious new strategy to accelerate progress with the ambition that three-quarters of all cancer patients diagnosed in 20 years’ time will survive at least 10 years.
Women with breast cancer now have a 78% chance of surviving at least a decade in the UK, compared to only 40%. 10-year survival for men with testicular cancer has jumped from 69% to 98% since the 1970s and, for people diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, 10-year survival has leapt from 46% to 89%. Here in the North East, cancer specialists are world leaders in research, with outstanding facilities such as the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, the Northern Institute for Cancer Research and the Northern Centre for Cancer Care.
Key clinical studies have made significant breakthroughs in the development of treatments, an example being a daily pill which was trialled on Tyneside to help skin cancer sufferers. A team from the Northern Institute for Cancer Research was at the forefront of efforts to create a once-a-day pill for those with a disease that often sees tumours grow on the face and neck.
Clinical trials in Newcastle – one of only a handful that have taken place in the country – found that the treatment – vismodegib – was able to shrink visible lesions in 47% of patients with advanced basal cell carcinoma. Tumours were also shown to be reduced in 33% of those with metastatic basal cell carcinoma.
Prof Ruth Plummer, oncologist and director of the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, said: “It is great that more patients are living at least 10 years following a diagnosis of cancer.
“There have been real improvements in the way that we treat cancer, particularly because there’s better diagnosis in the early stages and we have much better treatments. Cancer is now being picked up earlier, which gives patients a better chance of surgery and in some cases a cure.
“In the North East we very much play our part in cancer research as – for the region’s size – the North East makes very big contributions and does very well with advances in medical treatments.”
But sadly it’s not all good news. Just 1% of pancreatic cancer patients and 5% of lung cancer patients diagnosed today are expected to survive 10 years. Cancer Research UK has worked to increase research into these cancers but change has been slower than hoped – which is why a renewed focus is needed to make faster progress.
Survival from oesophageal cancer is still far too low at 12%, although 40 years ago it languished at around 4%. Brain tumour survival is also very low at just 13%, despite more than doubling in the last 40 years.
Saving more lives from all cancers, including those that are hard to treat, is the overriding focus of Cancer Research UK’s new strategy. The scheme details a raft of measures aimed at accelerating the speed of progress.
Ensuring cancer patients are diagnosed at the earliest possible stage of their disease, when treatment is more likely to be successful, is a key priority for the charity. And it plans to fund more scientists from different disciplines because collaboration is key to moving discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic to make sure patients will benefit sooner.
Prof Michel Coleman, head of Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Survival Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whose team produced the survival figures, said: “These results come from detailed analysis of the survival of more than 7m cancer patients diagnosed in England and Wales since the 1970s.
“They show just how far we’ve come in improving cancer survival, but they also shine a spotlight on areas where much more needs to be done.
“We want to see people with every type of cancer get the same chances of living a long life. This won’t be easy, but the progress reported here over the last 40 years shows we’re moving in the right direction.”
Funding is needed for vital research into all types of cancer and the charity hopes these latest figures will inspire women across the North East to sign up to Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life events in the region to raise money to help even more people survive cancer.
Men can support Race for Life too by volunteering at events or simply sponsoring their wives, partners, sisters, mums, daughters or friends.
Lisa Millett, Cancer Research UK’s spokesperson for the North East, said: “Every year, tens of thousands more people are surviving cancer a decade after diagnosis, showing that we’re gradually reversing the tide on this devastating disease. This is thanks to the work of our scientists and doctors, but none of it would be possible without the generosity of the public, whose donations we rely on to fund all our research.
“But each year more and more people are diagnosed with cancer. We believe no one should be diagnosed too late for their life to be saved and effective treatments should be available to every patient, no matter what type of cancer they have. That’s why thousands of women will be raising money through Race for Life events in the North East this summer.
“Achieving our ambition to see three-quarters of all cancer patients surviving their disease in the next 20 years will be challenging. But with the continued commitment of our scientists, doctors and nurses and the generous support of the public, we hope to see our progress accelerate over the coming years to make this a reality.”
For more information about Race for Life visit www.raceforlife.org or call 0845 600 6050.