CRUK charts course to solve UK’s poor cancer survival rate


Thousands of people are dying needlessly from cancer in the UK because it is lagging behind other countries in earlier detection rates, according to Cancer Research UK.

The finding is laid out in a new manifesto published by the charity, which lays out a framework for the government to follow if it is to meet its goal of making the UK one of the best countries in the world for cancer survival by 2035.

While there have been massive strides forward in treating cancer in the last decades – with a doubling in survival rates in the last 50 years – a failure to identify patients with earlier-stage cancers and delays in starting treatment has meant there is a threat that the trend could reverse.

“With NHS cancer services in crisis and around half a million new cancer cases each year expected by 2040 – this hard-won progress is at risk of stalling,” said CRUK, which is calling on all political parties to make cancer a top priority in their manifestoes as the UK moves closer to a next general election sometime before January 2025. Following the guidance could save 20,000 cancer-related deaths by 2040, it claims.

The manifesto is based on five “missions” for the government, led by an intensification in biomedical research – pointing out that for every £1 spent on R&D, £2.80 comes back in the form of reduced costs and greater productivity in the population.

Prevention will also be key, and CRUK has highlighted and welcomed the current government’s plan to phase out the sale of tobacco products by raising the legal age of smoking every year so that eventually nobody will be able to buy them. If implemented, the charity predicts that it could prevent 18,200 cancer cases by 2040.

Early diagnosis is crucial as almost half of all cancers are detected at a late stage, so screening programmes need to be beefed up overall, and an ongoing lung cancer screening drive rolled out more quickly.

Patients still need to wait too long for tests and treatment, according to the report – mainly due to resource constraints within the NHS – and the government should set out a 10-year cancer-specific workforce plan to address the chronic staff shortages in cancer services.

Finally, the current fragmented responsibility for cancer research and care needs to be united under a single national cancer care council, accountable to the Prime Minister, to deliver an integrated, 10-year cancer strategy.

That is an approach that has proved highly effective in Denmark, which was also languishing down the cancer survival rankings a few years ago but has seen massive improvements, with consistent funding and long-term cancer strategies central to their success, according to the report.

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

The NHS has already set a target to diagnose three-quarters of cancers at the earliest stages of 1 or 2 by 2028, but the charity reckons this will be a challenge, particularly given the latest cancer waiting times data.

“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,” said Mitchell. “Their lives are at stake if we don’t act now.”

The new document was praised by Professor Richard Sullivan, director of the Institute of Cancer Policy and co-director of the Centre for Conflict & Health Research at King’s College London, but he believes some changes should be made, particularly the emphasis on innovation as a solution.

“The research and development landscape is already dominated by discovery science and biopharmaceutical research, so our focus shouldn’t be on the funding gap, but toward implementation science, health services research and orphan funding domains like palliative care and surgery,” he argued.

“The inequalities we see will be resolved by more than just screening and early diagnostic technologies. Most of these inequalities are due to fundamental differences in the social determinants of health – and the future governments need to prioritise public and social health.”

28 November, 2023