Cancer Survivors in the UK Reaching Record Proportions

Liam Davenport

January 08, 2015

Approximately 2.5 million people in the United Kingdom (UK) will be living with cancer in 2015, an increase of more than half a million people over the past 5 years, an analysis by a leading UK charity reveals.

Macmillan Cancer Support, which developed the report, warns that this could have a severe impact on the UK National Health Service, particularly because around 25% of cancer survivors face poor health or disability following cancer treatment, with its severe adverse effects.

In a release, Lynda Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, commented: "While it is great news that more people are surviving cancer or living longer with it, progress is a double-edged sword."

"As numbers surge, the NHS will soon be unable to cope with the huge increase in demand for health services and the support that organisations like Macmillan provide will become even more urgent and important."

She added: "It is essential that every one of those 2.5 million people receives the highest quality care and support and gets the best chance they possibly can of surviving cancer."

The report, "Rich Picture — People With Cancer," was published online by Macmillan Cancer Support on January 6, 2015.

Multiple Factors

Extrapolating data from a paper published in the British Journal of Cancer in 2012 and pooling information from a wide range of sources, the Macmillan report states that much of the increase in the numbers of cancer survivors is due to the aging population. Specifically, the number of people older than age 65 years living with cancer has increased by 23% over the past 5 years.

Improvements in detection and treatment have also played their part, with 1.6 million of the 2.5 million people living with cancer having been diagnosed at least 5 years ago.

Reacting to the report, Nick Ormiston-Smith, head of statistical information at the UK charity Cancer Research UK, told the BBC: "Cancer is mainly a disease of old age so as we live longer, more people will develop the disease."

"This means the number of cases will increase as the UK population ages. Research has also led to improvements in survival so more people are living longer following a cancer diagnosis," he said.

Noting that a general election is upcoming in the UK in 2015, Ormiston-Smith continued: "It's essential that the next government increases investment in the NHS, particularly in diagnostics and treatments, so our cancer services are fit to deal with the increasing demand of an ageing population and can ensure the best possible results for patients."

Individual Cancer Burden

Looking at individual cancers, Macmillan estimates that 330,000 people will be living with prostate cancer in the UK in 2015, representing an increase of 27% over the past 5 years. Approximately 60% of these individuals will face long-term health issues, such as incontinence, the report states.

In addition, it is calculated that there will be 290,000 colorectal cancer survivors, representing an 18% increase, as well as 72,000 individuals living with lung cancer and approximately 1,100,000 people with other cancers.

The situation is particularly stark for breast cancer; the report estimates that 691,000 people in the UK will be living with breast cancer in 2015. This represents a 21% rise in the prevalence of breast cancer over the last 5 years.

While welcoming the report, Sally Greenbrook, senior policy officer at the UK charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, described the number of women living with breast cancer as "really worrying." She also believes that the situation is set to worsen in the coming years.

"Breast cancer is a disease of older people," she told Medscape Medical News, adding: "Eighty percent of breast cancers are in women over the age of 50 and we do have an aging population, so it is likely that the incidence will continue to rise."

However, she observed that the headline figure of 691,000 breast cancer survivors is an incomplete picture because patients may be at different points on the care pathway. "Some of them may have just received a diagnosis, some of them might be in remission, others might be receiving end-of-life care. So we don't know where they are on that pathway."

She continued: "It does mean that survival is increasing among people who have received a diagnosis at some point in their lifetime. It doesn't mean that they are actively undergoing treatment at the moment."

Greenbrook feels that adequately tackling the issues presented by increased survival requires a change of mindset toward cancer and continuing care.

She said, "We need to make sure that we continue to have early diagnosis and patients be seen as early as possible, particularly in the aging population, to ensure that [general practitioners] are aware of the presence of breast cancer and refer their patients as quickly as possible.

"We also know a lot these people will not be undergoing active treatment but may need support in their community through social care and other types of support. It's important that we have those services available to those patients as and when we need them."

Finally, Greenbrook emphasized the need for prevention to tackle the rising burden of breast cancer. "We know that women can reduce their risk of breast cancer by increasing their physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and monitoring their alcohol intake," she said, "but we don't know exactly what causes most cases of breast cancer, which is why research is so essential in this area."

To that end, Breakthrough Breast Cancer is studying 100,000 women older than age 40 years and monitoring their lifestyle and environmental factors.

As Greenbrook explained, the charity wants to "see if we can pinpoint exactly what causes breast cancer, so we can prevent it the future and stop these big numbers from continuing to rise."

No relevant financial relationships have been disclosed.


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