Cancer Research UK – Science blog

Everyone in the UK is likely to feel the impact of cancer in their lifetime.

That could be through facing a diagnosis themselves, or because a loved one or friend is affected. And ahead of World Cancer Day 2023, we’ve published a new report that shows that the impact of cancer for people in the UK will only grow, and sets out the challenges that cancer services are already facing today.

The state of the UK

New modelling published in the report, Cancer in the UK: Overview 2023 shows that if current trends continue, cancer cases will rise from the 384,000 diagnosed each year now, to over half a million by 2040.*

To put that into context, that means around a third more people will be diagnosed with the condition every year in comparison to current levels. And we could see around a quarter more annual cancer deaths – 208,000 by 2040’

With services’ barely treading water now, Governments across the UK must act if they are to effectively meet the increase in demand that this analysis anticipates, but efforts have been piecemeal so far.

Nearly a year after it was first announced, the Government has reneged on its promise to publish a long-term cancer plan for England.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is expected to publish its cancer strategy this spring. But in Northern Ireland, despite publishing their cancer strategy last year, the political instability there has meant implementing it has been impossible. And the new Cancer Improvement Plan for Wales shows promise in addressing urgent challenges, however, it is only a short term, 3-year plan. More needs to be done.

What’s behind the rise in cancer cases?

This projected increase in cancer cases is mainly due to the growing and ageing population, and over the next twenty years, new cancer patients in the UK are projected to become older.

Currently, around 5 in 10 new cancer cases were in people aged 70+. By 2040, this figure could be 6 in 10.

And as more cancers are diagnosed in older people who may be living with other long-term health conditions, a greater number of them will have more complex needs that must be met by the healthcare system.

By understanding how the cancer population will change, we have opportunity to plan for this change.

But we need to take advantage of that opportunity.

Will people be more likely to develop cancer in the future?

Worryingly, the analysis didn’t just show us that the number of cancer cases will increase, it also shows that overall cancer incidence rate is projected to increase by around 3% by 2040, meaning that people will be more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than they are now.

That means that every measure we can take to prevent cancer cases is crucial.

Currently, around 4 in 10 cancer cases are caused by preventable risk factors including smoking and obesity. Our Smokefree UK campaign has called for measures to reduce the number of people starting smoking, and increased investment for the services and measures needed to help people quit.

Together with actions that create an environment supportive of people to maintain a healthy weight, including population wide measures that reduce the advertising and promotion of unhealthy food and drink, the UK Governments should be taking bold measures to help us all lead healthier lives, and reduce our cancer risk.

Will cancer services be able to cope with the increase in demand?

So, the UK can expect more cancer cases by 2040. Where does that leave cancer services?

Services are already over stretched, so there seems little hope that, without urgent action, that they will be able to cope in the future.

Many people are facing long waits for tests as diagnostic services struggle to keep up with demand, while waiting times for diagnosis and cancer treatment are among the worst on record.

Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new. Targets across the UK have been repeatedly missed for years. COVID-19 worsened performance, but waiting times have been poor since before the pandemic started. That is why there needs to be transformative long-term change.

It’s imperative that diagnostic and treatment services have the capacity to support every patient. It is no secret that health services are currently working under intense pressures.

Across the UK, 79% of people don’t think that the health service has enough staff or equipment to see, test and treat all the people with cancer. Each UK nation must address the long-term challenges in equipment and staff so that there is sufficient capacity across services to meet growing patient demand.

As more people are diagnosed, we need to diagnose more people early

Increasing the number of cancers diagnosed at an earlier stage will be integral to improving cancer survival in the future. Patients diagnosed at an early stage are more likely to survive their cancer for longer.

Take bowel cancer for example. When diagnosed at the earliest stage, more than 9 in 10 people survive their disease for five years or more. This drops to just 1 in 10 when it’s diagnosed as the latest stage.

That’s why all UK nations are seeking to increase the number of cases diagnosed at early stages – but this won’t happen without increasing diagnostic capacity and optimising screening services. It will also require a lot more action to ensure that people with cancer symptoms recognise them and report them to their GP.

Cancer survival in this country already lags behind comparable countries. If the UK is to deliver world leading cancer outcomes for people today and in the future, we need to see a transformative long-term vision matched with fully funded and ambitious policies. And we need it urgently.

An infographic should the 5-year survival for lung, bowel, breast and prostate cancer when caught at the earliest stage (stage 1) vs the latest stage (stage 4)

Together we will beat cancer

This new Cancer in the UK report gives us a snapshot of key challenges facing those affected by cancer, and the health services needed to care for them.

And it paints a clear picture of just how urgently each UK nation needs to take action to improve cancer care.

“Today’s analysis provides a stark reminder of the challenges the NHS is set to face in years to come, says Michelle Mitchell, our chief executive.

“Cancer patients are already facing unacceptably long waits for diagnosis and treatment, and staff in cancer services have never worked harder.

“The Government needs to provide long-term, lasting solutions to this crisis. This World Cancer Day, we are asking him and Rishi Sunak to commit to the ambitious, focused and fully-costed 10-year plan that will prepare cancer services for the future and give people affected by cancer the care they deserve.”

we’ve started work on a long-term vision that how the UK can transform cancer research and care, which we will be developing this year.

But, while we’ll continue to work toward a future where everybody can lead longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer, we can’t do it alone.

Cancer cases in the UK are projected to rise. Governments must rise to the challenge in response.

Imogen Brown is a health policy advisor at Cancer Research UK

*More detail available on our website

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