One in two people will develop cancer at some point in their lives

One in two people will develop cancer at some point in their lives, according to the most accurate forecast to date from Cancer Research UK.

The research charity has published the new forecast today in the British Journal of Cancer and its release coincides with World Cancer Day.

The new figures reflect a global trend of people living longer thanks to better healthcare and medical advances, thereby raising an individual’s chances of developing cancer in later life.

Cancer Research UK says the new figures highlight the urgent need to bolster public health and NHS cancer services so they can cope with a growing and ageing population and the looming demands for better diagnostics, treatments, and earlier diagnosis.

First and foremost, more action and information for people to help prevent cancers developing is seen as crucial in minimising the impact of cancer on society and healthcare systems.

Thanks to better treatment, the UK’s cancer survival has doubled over the last 40 years and around half of patients now survive the disease for more than 10 years. But, as more people benefit from improved healthcare and longer life expectancy, the number of cancer cases is expected to rise. This new research estimating lifetime risk finds that, from now on*, 1 in 2 people will be diagnosed with the disease.

This new estimate replaces the previous figure, calculated using a different method, which predicted that more than 1 in 3 people would develop cancer at some point in their lives.

Age is the biggest risk factor for most cancers, and the increase in lifetime risk is primarily because more people are surviving into old age, when cancer is more common.

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re living longer and that means we’re more likely to develop a range of age-related health issues. We need to plan ahead to make sure the NHS is fit to cope. If the NHS doesn’t act and invest now, we will face a crisis in the future – with outcomes from cancer going backwards.

“As Simon Stevens set out in the NHS Five Year Forward View, we need better planning and innovative design of services. We also need to ensure the health service is adequately funded if we’re to deal effectively with the growing burden of cancer and offer all patients the best chance of long term survival.

Harpal Kumar added that a ‘broader sense’ of how to prevent more cancers was essential. More than four in ten of the cancers diagnosed each year in the UK could be prevented by changes in lifestyle – but persuading people to change in this way could be one of the biggest challenges.

Study author Professor Peter Sasieni, based at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Cancer is primarily a disease of old age, with more than 60 per cent of all cases diagnosed in people aged over 65. If people live long enough then most will get cancer at some point. But there’s a lot we can do to make it less likely – like giving up smoking, being more active, drinking less alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight.

“If we want to reduce the risk of developing the disease we must redouble our efforts and take action now to better prevent the disease for future generations.”

Dr Emma King, Cancer Research UK head and neck surgeon, said: “We’re seeing more patients than ever before and the numbers are increasing year on year. But the resources for treating these people have stayed the same. If we’re going to give them the best possible chance of beating the disease then we’ll need greater investment and support now and in the future.

“Preventing more cancers and diagnosing the disease as early as possible, when treatment is more likely to be effective, could have a significant impact on survival in the UK. We also need the infrastructure to better tailor treatments to patients based on the molecular makeup underpinning their individual cancers.”

Future of cancer funding

Reflecting the growing demand for cancer treatment, the future of how cancer treatment – and how the NHS can afford it – is a topic regularly in the UK news.

Most recently, it was announced that England’s Cancer Drugs Fund would have a number of drugs ‘de-listed’, as NHS England tries to cut back on a rapidly rising bill for cancer medicines.

Nevertheless, despite the de-listing, the budget for the CDF is set to rise to £340 million for health service’s next financial year, beginning in April.

It is widely acknowledged that the CDF was a politically motivated short-term solution, but there is still no consensus as to what a fairer, more sustainable solution would look like.

The UK general election is just over three months away, and the future of the NHS is one of the key battlegrounds. The opposition Labour party has already set out its long-term plan for cancer care, including a goal of having the best cancer survival rates in Europe – an ambitious goal given its poor ranking for one year survival rates.

The party has also pledged to change the CDF, turning it into a broader Cancer Treatment Fund, which would cover radiotherapy and surgery in addition to drugs.

However no parties have yet matched the funding call made by NHS England’s Simon Stevens NHS Five Year Forward View, raising concerns about a long-term squeeze on health service resources.

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