People with breast, bowel and ovarian cancers, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, are now twice as likely to survive for at least 10 years than in the 1970s, although there is still much work to do. In breast cancer, 10-year survival in breast cancer has jumped from less than 40% to a predicted 77% currently, while half of people diagnosed with bowel cancer are now expected to survive at least 10 years compared with 23% in the 1970s. For ovarian cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, survival has increased from 18 to 35% and from 22 to 51% respectively.
In cancers such as, although survival rates are still very poor at below 20%, in oesophageal cancer and myeloma, rates have improved almost threefold over the past few decades. However, some other cancers have shown little improvement, most notably lung and pancreatic cancer.
Professor Michel Coleman, an expert in statistics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said of his published figures, “the survival data reflect “real progress” in cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“We are delighted to note these improvements in cancer survival”. Professor Mike Richards, the Department of Health’s national cancer director, commented “Improving health outcomes is a key priority for the coalition government and will be a major focus of the forthcoming review of the Cancer Reform Strategy”.
The picture is muddied however by the report published this week by Macmillan Cancer Support. It predicts cancer rates among the elderly are likely to rise dramatically in the future, due to longer life expectancy, with 40% of individuals likely to get the disease during their lifetime. This poses a considerable challenge to the NHS.
New Approach Needed
Calling for a new approach to Cancer treatment and research, Dr Ian N Hampson, cancer research scientist at the University of Manchester, states: “Although there is no doubt that there have been major improvements in the treatment of cancer, and leukaemia survival is now four times as high, the overall picture is not quite as rosy as some would have us believe. While it is well known that many of the current therapies have very unpleasant short-term side-effects that can be traumatic, it is less well known that they can also produce effects which only become apparent in the long-term. Indeed it is a sad fact that many of these treatments actually increase the risk of developing other forms of cancer over periods of 10-30 years.
“What is clearly needed is a departure from the reliance on non-specific therapies, such as radiation and chemical poisons, which can cause permanent damage to normal cells. In order to address this issue, current research has focused on the development of, so-called, targeted approaches which have fewer side effects. The down side to these is that cancers quickly evolve to escape the effects of these drugs”.
Dr Hampson continued, “We need to focus on a fresh approach to cancer per se. I believe that a major problem with contemporary cancer research is that it is far too pedestrian, preferring to allocate funding to projects which deliver small incremental steps in progress rather than those with higher risk but which have the potential to yield ground-breaking leaps forward”.
Prevention Better than the Cure
“The statement ‘prevention is better than the cure’ has never been truer”, Dr Hampson points out.
“We need to focus more closely on the causes of cancer and how we may avoid them. Indeed these can often be put in place with simple changes in life style. The trouble with cancer is that it can be caused by a whole range of factors which vary between individuals and it is not quick. Some cancers can take between 10 and 40 years to develop”.
Dr Ian Hampson, who heads the oncology research laboratories at Manchester University, is a patron of Caring Cancer Trust and its Alpine Healing Holidays and Research programmes.