The number of people dying from cancer in the UK has fallen by nearly 10 per cent over the last decade, according to the latest figures released on World Cancer Day today.
Figures released by Cancer Research show 284 out of every 100,000 people died from cancer in the UK in 2013 – the latest year for which full figures are available – compared to 312 out of every 100,000 in 2003.
The combined death rate from breast, bowel, lung and prostate cancer – the four cancers which cause almost half of all cancer deaths in the UK – mirrors the overall fall, dropping by around 11 per cent over the last 10 years.
The fall in UK death rates can largely be attributed to progress in detecting, diagnosing and treating the disease. But although the number of people dying from cancer is falling, the numbers of those being diagnosed with the disease and the numbers of people dying from liver and pancreatic cancer continue to climb.
Experts predict that because people are living longer, one-in-two people born in the UK after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. Age, population growth, obesity, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and our propensity to drink and smoke are all expected to play a prominent role in the number of people dying of cancer annually.
At present, around 85,000 men and 77,000 women die from cancer every year in the UK, with the gap between men and women’s cancer death rates continuing to narrow. Promisingly, the number of men dying from cancer has fallen by 12 per cent from 397 for every 100,000 in 2003 to 349 for every 100,000 in 2013. This compares to an eight per cent drop in the number of women dying from cancer, with 259 per 100,000 in 2003 to 240 in 2013.
Unfortunately, cancer survival rates in Britain continue to lag behind many of our European neighbours, in part because all countries are improving. Although global cancer survival rates have doubled in 40 years, rates in the UK in many cases are still at a level where other countries stood 10 years ago. This is unacceptable.
In addition, there are widespread and significant regional variations in survival rates with research showing that too many patients are suffering variations in care standards and too many are still being diagnosed with cancer much later than they should be. Indeed, in some less affluent areas, people diagnosed with lung cancer are four times more likely to die than in others because smoking is more common and people are reluctant to see their GPs until it is often too late.
Although it is obviously hugely encouraging that cancer death rates are falling, it is important to remember that the overall number of people dying of cancer is expected to rise. The population in the UK continues to grow and more of us are living longer. In addition, too many people continue to make lifestyle choices that are detrimental to their health, despite growing awareness of the benefits of exercise and healthy eating.
Survival for some of the most common types of cancer is far higher when diagnosed in the earlier stages. The earlier cancer is detected the higher the chances of patients receiving potentially life-saving care. If care standards were consistent across the country then 20,000 more sufferers would be diagnosed at stage 1 or 2 of the disease, instead of stage 3 or 4 over the next two years.
While there are many reasons why UK cancer survival rates continue to lag behind other comparable countries, delays or errors made in diagnosis and a lack of specialist medical oncologists, surgeons and radiologists, not to mention operating theatres, are both key factors. Through our own experience acting for patients who have been harmed by delayed cancer diagnosis or negligent medical treatment we know that the errors we see repeatedly include failures by doctors to adequately listen to patients and take account of their symptoms, failings to make early referrals and mistakes in interpreting biopsies, scans and x-rays.
Paul Sankey is a senior medical negligence solicitor leading the Slater and Gordon Lawyers clinical negligence team in London.
Slater and Gordon help people who have suffered from delayed or wrong diagnosis of cancer due to medical negligence.
For a free consultation call the medical negligence team at Slater and Gordon on freephone 0800 916 9049 or contact us online and we will call you.