If you pay attention to news around cancer survival rates, it would appear to be a relatively rosy picture.
Cancer survival in the US has doubled in the last 40 years – up to 50% – and figures in the UK and other European countries are similarly positive. Some common cancer types even have one-year survival rates of more than 90% – malignant melanoma (a form of skin cancer), breast cancer and prostate cancer.
But – and it’s a big but – there’s a much less- well-known set of cancer types known as the “less survivable cancers”: these 6 common cancers are responsible for almost half of all cancer deaths and a quarter of cancer cases each year in the UK.
They’re often more aggressive and difficult to treat, making it less likely that someone diagnosed with one of them will survive.
Lung, pancreatic, liver, brain, oesophageal and stomach cancers all have a 5-year survival rate after diagnosis of under 20%.
The survival rate of someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is just 7%, with 3 in 5 cases not picked up until the cancer is at an advanced stage.
Why are these cancers less survivable?
One of the main issues is that each of the cancer types is diagnosed too late.
Around 1 in 3 patients with a less survivable cancer will only be diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital – this compares poorly with other common cancers, where the number of cases diagnosed at a late stage is only 15%.
For these less survivable cancers, the symptoms tend to be non-specific, which adds to the difficulty. Pancreatic cancer symptoms are typically indigestion, stomach pain and weight loss, while common brain tumour symptoms are headaches and nausea. For liver cancer there are usually no symptoms at an early stage at all.
And even if a patient does go and see their GP, the vagueness of the symptoms means that it might take a long time to get a referral, again reducing the chances of survival.
These cancer types are also often resistant to the treatments used successfully elsewhere, such as chemotherapy and radiation.
Frustratingly, these 6 cancers get only 16% of the research investment of more survivable cancers – without more research, survival rates will struggle to increase.
This year, the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce is calling for investment in earlier detection and faster diagnosis to save lives.
We need to think about prevention
We absolutely agree that less survivable cancers deserve more investment, to enable doctors to diagnose suspected cases more quickly and find out more about what causes these devastating cancers. However, we also know that there are ways to reduce your risk of developing 5 of the 6 less survivable cancers.
90% of lung cancer cases in men and more than 80% in women worldwide are due to tobacco use. We recommend stopping smoking to cut your risk of lung cancer.
There’s strong evidence that being overweight or living with obesity can lead to cirrhosis, a cause of liver cancer. In addition, drinking around three or more alcoholic drinks a day is a cause of liver cancer, a risk that increases if a person also smokes.
As with liver cancer, you can reduce your risk of oesophageal cancer by being a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol and stopping smoking.
Your risk of developing pancreatic cancer is higher if you’re overweight or living with obesity, and if you’re a smoker. To cut your risk, we recommend trying to be a healthy weight and stopping smoking.
Our Global Cancer Update Programme has identified 4 ways you can reduce your risk of stomach cancer:
- be a healthy weight
- avoid alcohol
- don’t smoke
- avoid salt-preserved food
The latter is particularly relevant for people living in east Asia, where salted/dried fish and pickled vegetables are more common in diets.
In short, we wholeheartedly endorse the need to diagnose and treat these cancer types earlier, but we also know that – for any type of cancer – prevention is better than cure.
Our Cancer Prevention Recommendations are not just a blueprint for individuals wanting to reduce their risk of cancer. They’re also a blueprint for the people who make polices and we urge the UK government to do more to make the environment in which we all live a happier, healthier one, with policies to:
- reduce smoking
- make a healthy diet available to all
- reduce obesity
- reduce alcohol
- enable more physical activity
Less Survivable Cancers Awareness Day is on 11 January 2023.