Cancer now robs Brits of 14 years of life, according to an analysis branded a ‘wake up call’.
For comparison, this is one extra year than for patients diagnosed in the 1980s. And experts predict it could get even worse.
One leading oncologist said, on the back of the new survival data, it was time ‘to put cancer right back at the top’ of the Government’s agenda. Another demanded it was treated ‘with the same gusto’ as the historic Covid vaccine programme.
But researchers who conducted the analysis said the data somewhat paradoxically demonstrated the success of Britain’s cancer screening programmes.
In the first analysis of its kind, researchers discovered more than two million years of life are lost to cancer in the UK every year.
A new analysis has shown the years of life an average cancer patient in the UK is expected to lose, the amount of life lost in terms of all cancers has increased to 14.1 from 13.4 in the 1980s
Breast cancer is the UK’s most common cancer with almost 56,000 cases diagnosed per year
A team at Cancer Research UK, King’s College London and Queen Mary University of London used average life expectancy and cancer death data to work out time lost.
On average, cancer patients diagnosed between 1988 and 1992 were robbed of 13.4 years of life.
And despite years of cancer breakthroughs, the experts found the disease stripped 14.1 years from patients, on average, in 2013-17.
This was a slight decrease on the previous five-year slot.
Experts told MailOnline this was likely due to a broad rise in life expectancy meaning a cancer diagnosis now is robbing people of a greater portion of their lifespan than it did some 30 years ago.
But some warned the dire state of NHS cancer services — which are repeatedly failing to reach critical performance targets — may exacerbate years of life lost in the coming years.
Professor Karol Sikora, a world-renowned oncologist with over 40 years’ experience, who was not involved in the study, explained people were simply living longer rather than cancer getting worse, in theory.
He said this boost in overall life expectancy in the population left people with ‘more to lose’ from the disease.
‘You’re losing more years of life because we’re all living so much longer,’ he said.
Life expectancy in England and Wales has soared to about 80 for both men and women in recent years, about a 10 years more than in the in 1970s.
Professor Sikora, ex-chief of the World Health Organization’s Cancer Program, said the data shouldn’t undermine the massive cancer breakthroughs that have occurred over the past few decades.
For instance, drugs used to pummel tumours have been found since the,
As well new medications revolutionary screening programmes, credited with spotting thousands of cancers early when they are most treatable, have been rolled out.
Professor Sikora highlighted how in ‘just a generation of doctors’ cancer cure rates have gone from 34 per cent to nearly 51 per cent.
However, he predicted years of life lost to cancer would sadly increase due to the disruption of the Covid pandemic to the NHS and the service’s repeated failure to meet treatment targets.
‘People are going to present with later stages of the disease,’ he said.
‘All of the disruption caused by trying to successfully deal with Covid has resulted, as a side effect, with a huge loss of life years to cancer.’
Prostate cancer follows closely behind with 52,000 cases diagnosed in men each year
Lunch cancer, while not the most common form of the disease, is one of the biggest cancer killers in the Uk with a survival rate of just 10 per cent
Dr Judith Offman, of King’s, and an author in the new analysis, said the increase in average years of life lost per patient was due to combination of factors.
In addition to growing life expectancy, she also pointed to the success of screening programmes for the disease like those for breast and cervical cancer as, somewhat paradoxically, contributing to the increase in average years of life lost per patient.
Dr Offman explained these programmes, like those for breast cancer where women aged between 50 and 71 are invited for mammograms, are hugely successful in detecting cancers at their earliest stage, when they are easiest to treat, in older women.
However, this had resulted in a general shift in the patient demographic of serious late-stage cancers to younger women, who aren’t regularly invited to screening.
‘That has caused an increase in average years of life lost per patient because the ones that we still find late are not easy to treat,’ she said.
‘It’s a combination of mostly the success of the cancer screening programmes, improvements to treatments and an increase in life expectancy.
‘It’s somewhat counterintuitive – overall years of life lost going down is a good thing, but for breast and cervical cancer, the analysis showed it’s caused a slight increase in the average years of life lost per patient.
‘But it’s important to remember that, at the level of the UK population, rates of years of life lost have decreased drastically in these cancers and that’s something that should be celebrated.’
Cancer care was effectively ground to a halt for some patients when the pandemic first reached the UK’s shores, with appointments cancelled and diagnostic scans delayed because of the Government’s devotion to protecting the NHS.
Experts have estimated 40,000 cancers went undiagnosed during the first year of pandemic alone.
NHS cancer services are also repeatedly failing to achieve their targets.
Official health service data on cancer waiting times show that just six in ten (62.6 per cent) cancer patients were seen within the two-month target in July. NHS guidelines state 85 per cent of cancer patients should be seen within this timeframe.
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer and kills 16,800 Brits every year
Melanoma which primarily caused by UV damage to the skin from the sun or tanning beds is one of the most preventable cancers with Cancer Research UK estimating nearly 9 in 10 cases could be prevented
Problems in the system pre-date Covid, though, with this target having not been met nationally since December 2015.
Professor Sikora called for NHS and Department of Health officials to urgently boost resourcing for both suspected and confirmed cancer patients.
‘The NHS has to admit we have a problem with cancer,’ he said.
‘You can’t snatch a workforce out of thin air, you’ve got to use the one you have, pay them overtime to do the scans, the endoscopies, the biopsies and so on.’
He said that staff could be offered incentives like tax breaks and childcare to work overtime.
‘Treat it with the same gusto as the vaccine programme,’ he said.
CRUK’s head of cancer intelligence, Jon Shelton, argued there was no need to panic over the increase in years of life lost by patients to cancer.
However, he said it was still worrying and clearly demonstrated there was still room for improvement in prevention.
‘This is concerning, and we need to do better,’ he said. ‘That’s why it’s important to focus on cancer prevention… to bring it down in the future.’
He added measures like the HPV vaccine programme reducing the risk of cervical cancer and newly-announced plans to phase out smoking in young people as fresh sources of optimism that could reverse the trend.
However, he agreed that the NHS needed to rapidly improve cancer service delivery.
‘It does need that investment, and that focus on the service to make sure we are seeing patients as quickly as possible,’ he said.
‘The more we can do and keep cancer on top of the agenda, and improve survival, prevent more cases where we can, diagnose as early as possible, these will help to bring down the years of life lost in the future.
While the level of progress for cancer survival for some forms of the disease has been rapid, such as for breast and prostate cancers, others, like those for lung and pancreas have only improved at a snail’s pace
10-year cancer survival rates for many common cancers have now reached above the 50 per cent mark, and experts say further improvements could be made in the next decade
NHS figures on cancer waiting times showed that just six in ten (62.6 per cent) cancer patients were seen within the two-month target. NHS guidelines state 85 per cent of cancer patients should be seen within this time-frame. This target has not been met nationally since December 2015
‘Behind all these figures are people and their families who are really missing out.’
Professor Pat Price, oncologist and chair of Radiotherapy UK and co-founder of the Catch Up With Cancer, said CRUK’s analysis should be a ‘wake-up call’.
‘Over 2million years of life lost to cancer every year and half of new cancers affecting adults aged 50–74 is a national cancer crisis,’ she said.
‘Measuring the burden of cancer and how it really affects us individually and as a society should be the wake up call to put cancer right back at the top of the Government and Treasury’s agenda.
‘For every four week delay in treatment there can be a 10 per cent increase in risk of death.
‘We need action to back these solutions, with investment in kit and people, to reduce the staggering number of life years lost to this devastating disease.’
The CRUK analysis estimated that around 167,000 lives are lost to cancer in the UK every year – some 460 people every day.
High diagnosis and poor survival rates mean around a fifth of the total lost years are from lung cancer, with more than 500,000 per year.
Patients typically died 14 years early from lung, liver, pancreas and stomach cancer, 17 years early from breast and ovary, 25 years for cervical cancer and shockingly 33 years from testicular cancer.
Rates of stomach cancer have fallen 59 per cent, cervical by 58 per cent and breast cancers by 39 per cent thanks to diagnosis and treatment breakthroughs.
The total number of years of life lost to cervical cancer in 1988 was around 43,600 but the cervical screening programme has seen this plummet to around 21,800 in 2017.
The analysis showed liver, melanoma and kidney cancer have seen increases in rates of years of life lost, largely because of increases in numbers of cases.
Rising obesity and alcohol consumption is blamed for the rise in years lost to liver cancer with rates up 157 per cent in 30 years.
Testicular cancer had a smaller number of lost years of the cancer analysed because overall because survival rates are good.
However, in rare cases where the disease was fatal the average years lost was high, at 33 years, because patients died so young.