Health care tipping point means cancer no longer death sentence

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A “TIPPING point” has been reached in the war against cancer with half of newly diagnosed patients in England and Wales surviving at least 10 years, a landmark study has revealed.

The research announced today by Cancer Research UK has shown that many of the patients will be no more at risk of dying than members of the general population.

Experts have now claimed that cancer survival has changed so dramatically since the 1970s that it is time to adopt a whole new way of looking at the disease. Forty years ago just a quarter of patients lived as long as a decade, and people lived in dread of the “Big C”.

But Dr Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s not very long ago that cancer used to be thought of as a death sentence. The reason this 50 per cent figure is an important tipping point is it’s saying that, actually, now half of all patients will survive at least 10 years after a diagnosis and for many it will be very much longer than that.

“I think that does represent a change in the way we should be thinking about cancer.”

Currently, five-year survival is one of the main yardsticks used by clinicians and scientists when assessing cancer outcomes. Five-year survival is often the “end point” cited in trials of new treatments. Now a more optimistic approach might be justified, according to Dr Kumar.

He added: “Up until now the predominant metric we’ve used to look at survival of cancer has been the number of patients or proportion of patients who survive five years or more after diagnosis. With the progress that’s been made over the last few decades we think it’s time now to shift the narrative and to change the language we use and start thinking about 10-year survival from cancer.”

The research, which involved analysing data on more than seven million patients diagnosed with cancer since 1971, showed spectacular improvements in survival for some cancers. Rates of 10-year survival for testicular cancer had jumped from 69 per cent to 98 per cent, and for malignant skin cancer from 46 per cent to 89 per cent.

Women with breast cancer now had a 78 per cent chance of surviving at least a decade, compared with 40 per cent in 1971. Similarly, the proportion of men living 10 years with prostate cancer had jumped from 25 per cent to about 80 per cent.

But the outlook remains bleaker for patients with the deadliest forms of cancer, such as those affecting the lung, oesophagus, pancreas and brain.

Fewer than five per cent of people diagnosed with lung and pancreatic cancer could expect to live 10 years, and for oesophageal and brain cancers decade-long survival was no more than 15 per cent.

The UK continued to lag behind its comparable European neighbours when it came to cancer survival, chiefly due to GPs missing symptoms, late diagnosis and less effective treatments.

Cancer Research UK plans to boost its funding by more than 50 per cent with the ambitious goal of seeing three-quarters of cancer patients diagnosed in 20 years time survive at least 10 years.

Over the next five to 10 years, the charity will up its research spending from £350m to about £525m a year. Key priority areas will be probing the root causes of cancer, improving early diagnosis and treatment, expanding personalised medicine, and focusing more on the deadliest cancers.

The study was based on data from 7,176,795 adults in England and Wales diagnosed with cancer between 1971 and 2011.

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