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UK cancer death rate could rise for first time in decades, charities warn



Work to double cancer survival rates over the past 50 years could be undone if urgent action is not taken, a coalition of 47 cancer charities have warned.

One Cancer Voice estimated in a letter, published yesterday, around 40,000 people in the UK are living with cancer without knowing it. These people ‘should have started cancer treatment in 2020’ but did not because of service disruption and fear asking for help during a pandemic, they wrote.

But clearing the cancer backlog – such as sending screening invites, presenting with symptoms or receiving treatment – ‘will take months if not years’, they added. This means more patients are likely to be diagnosed at a later stage when their chances of survival are lower.

The letter, send to UK governments and NHS leaders, gave nine recommendations on how to help cancer patients and improve survival rates. It urged all four UK nations to ‘go further and faster than ever before’ in supporting cancer services, adding that a return ‘to pre-pandemic levels is simply not enough’ to meet already rising demand plus extra pressures from Covid-19.

‘We must return, as soon as possible, to driving efforts to prevent cancers, diagnose more patients at an early stage when chances of survival are greatest, and get all care and clinical trials back up and running,’ the letter continued.

The charities also called for funding public health campaigns to encourage people with signs and symptoms of cancer to seek help from their GP and build confidence that NHS services are open.

Their recommendations for UK governments also included: 

  • Investing in training and recruitment to expand the number of staff in key cancer professions
  • Driving earlier and faster diagnosis by reforming diagnostic services
  • Ensuring personalised care and support for all

Currently, there are on average around 367,000 new cancer cases in the UK every year – but this figure is expected to grow to over 500,000 by 2035.

The height of the Covid-19 pandemic saw thousands of people go undiagnosed, tests and treatments disrupted, and cancer clinical trials paused or slowed down, as covered by Nursing in Practice in an in-depth look at the backlog facing nursing from the pandemic.

Recent figures from NHS England show 171,231 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in January – an 11% drop on the 191,852 in the same month the year before.

Last week, breast cancer charity Breast Cancer Now warned thousands of delayed diagnoses during the Covid-19 pandemic could result in more women dying from the disease.