UK survival ranks among the worst in the world for deadliest cancers

15 Jan 2024
UK survival ranks among the worst in the world for deadliest cancers

The UK lags woefully behind other countries for cancer survival according to data shared today by the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce (LSCT).

The Taskforce, which represents six less survivable cancers: lung, liver, brain, oesophageal, pancreatic and stomach, with an average five-year survival rate of just 16%, has released the findings on Less Survivable Cancers Awareness Day to highlight the loss of life caused by this deadly cancer gap. 

The findings released today are based on a new analysis of existing data and the world survival rankings of cancers of the lung, liver, brain, oesophagus, pancreas and stomach. 

The UK ranks below most other countries for these six cancers.

The data shows that out of 33 countries of comparable wealth and income levels, the UK ranks as low as 28th for five year survival for both stomach and lung cancer.

This rises slightly to 26th for pancreatic cancer, 25th for brain cancer and 21st and 16th for liver and oesophageal cancers respectively. 

The countries with the highest five year survival rates for less survivable cancers were Korea, Belgium, USA, Australia and China and the new analysis found that, if people in the UK survived at the same rate as those in these countries, then over 8,000 lives could be saved annually.

Currently, in the UK around 15,400 people will survive for five years following a diagnosis of a less survivable cancer - if the UK had survival rates comparable to the top five performing countries, this number could be close to 24,000.

The reasons behind the UK’s lethal gap in survival are complex and experts believe they are likely to be a mix of delayed diagnosis and slow access to treatment. 

Many patients with a less survivable cancer will only be diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital or an urgent GP referral after symptoms have become severe. 

Currently in the UK, 7 in 10 patients receive no treatment at all for pancreatic cancer and of the 10,000 people diagnosed annually, just 10% receive surgery - the only potentially curative treatment.

These poor outcomes are often the result of patients waiting too long for a confirmed diagnosis and for treatment to begin.

Similarly, in England, only 65% of people with a cancerous brain tumour are treated by surgery, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy (the main potential treatments) in comparison to 85% of breast cancer patients.

The less survivable cancers make up nearly half of all common cancer deaths in the UK and over 90,000 people are diagnosed with one of the less survivable cancers in the UK every year. 

Despite their prevalence, the less survivable cancers receive a fraction (16.6%) of research funding of more survivable cancers. 

Anna Jewell, Chair of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce, said:

“People diagnosed with a less survivable cancer are already fighting against the odds for survival. The figures we’re sharing today show that people living in the UK have even worse prospects than those living in comparable countries.

“We can see from these statistics that if we could bring the survivability of these cancers on level with the best-performing countries in the world then we could give valuable years to thousands of patients.

“If we’re going to see positive and meaningful change then all of the UK governments must commit to proactively investing in research and putting processes in place so we can speed up diagnosis and improve treatment options.”

Elliot Colburn MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer, said:

"As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer, improving outcomes for all cancers is something I'm passionate about. Less survivable cancers deserve particular and urgent attention due to the very severe outcomes often faced by people diagnosed with them.

"If we're going to deliver world class care to cancer patients in the UK then we must bring ourselves on a level with other countries when it comes to diagnosis and treatment of less survivable cancers. I fully support Less Survivable Cancers Awareness Day and everyone working to improve outcomes for people diagnosed with these devastating cancers." 

50 year old Steven Cliff from Hampshire was diagnosed with advanced oesophageal cancer in 2021. He said:

“When I was first diagnosed it felt like the end of my life was imminent, it was terrifying. Since then I’ve had surgeries, several rounds of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and the heartbreak of finding out that the cancer had spread to my brain. Two years on and my latest scans show that things are stable and I am slowly beginning to rebuild my life.

“The NHS care I have received since being diagnosed has been exceptional, but if we could improve early diagnosis for these cancers so people don’t need to rely on the wonderful medical teams who have helped me, then it would make such a difference.”

The LSCT has hosted events at the House of Commons, Holyrood and the Senedd this week to talk to MPs, MSPs and MSs about the critical situation for people diagnosed with less survivable cancers and to call for a commitment from all UK governments to increase survival rates to 28% by 2029.

Source: Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce