It’s great to read media headlines about how the fight against cancer is improving, particularly with the introduction of exciting new breakthrough treatments.
Over the past decade funding has been provided for investment in innovative diagnostics and treatments to increase prevention and speed up diagnosis to improve the experience of cancer patients living with the disease. The Department of Health and Social Care has said that cancer remains a priority, even though survival rates are at a record high, with 7,000 more people surviving cancer compared with three years ago.
Indeed, across all main cancers, UK five-year survival rates have all improved in the past decade. The five-year survival, for breast cancer up 6% (80% to 86%), prostate cancer up 7% (82% to 89%), rectum cancer and colon cancer both up 8% (55% to 63%) and (52% to 60%) respectively.
Figure 1 – Five-year survival rates (%) for UK for analysed cancers9
Source: CONCORD -3, 2018
*NOTE: ALL=Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia
But despite the improving access to earlier diagnosis, improving access to surgery and radiotherapy, and tackling health inequalities by targeting primary prevention and public health; recent research by CONCORD-3, continues to show inequalities in cancer outcomes in the UK compared with other countries. An analysis of the research report by Matthew Thaxter, a research analyst at the UK Centre for Health Solutions, comparing the outcomes for cancer patients from 73 different countries over the period 2000-2014, shows how the UK continues to lag behind other European countries. For example:
- Lung cancer is the deadliest type of cancer in the UK, claiming a total of 35,486 lives in 2015. Based on five-year survival rates, the UK ranks 21st out of 27 other European Union (EU) countries;
- In 2015, colorectal cancer has the second highest mortality in the UK and cancer of the colon and cancer of the rectum in the UK ranked 17th and 12th respectively for five-year survival rates;
- Prostate cancer is the third most common cause of cancer death in the UK (11,819 deaths in 2015), overtaking breast cancer with 11,442 deaths in 2015. The study data ranks the UK in 16th and 14th places respectively, for five-year survival from prostate and breast cancers.
- The UK also ranks 14th for blood cancer, 20th for pancreatic cancer, 21st for brain cancer and 24th out of 27 for stomach cancer.
A key initiative in the UK is the availability of national screening programmes, yet recent reports show that these programmes are sadly not being fully utilised. For example, the percentage of women taking up invitations for breast cancer screening was at the lowest level in a decade in 2017, dropping to 71 per cent of women. Data from 2016-17 shows that over 1.2 million women in the UK (25 per cent of the eligible population) did not take up their invitation for cervical screening. So, there is an increasing number of women who may not be receiving the information or support needed.
If the UK is to improve its survival rates, then encouraging greater take-up of available screening programmes needs to be a priority. Taking breast cancer as an example – the five-year survival rate for breast cancer diagnosed at stage I is 90 per cent, but this drops drastically to just 13 per cent when diagnosed at stage IV. Cancer survival rates may have unfortunately lead to some complacency that people will survive a cancer diagnosis rather than appreciate that they may still spend years fighting the disease.
Where it used to be that 1 in 3 of us in the UK would get cancer in our lifetime, the new figure is now 1 in 2. Plus, anyone who has chemotherapy during their first diagnosis is at higher risk of getting cancer a second time because the drugs, which target cancerous cells, also affect normal cells. Even targeted radiation treatment can lead to a second cancer down the line. and these are often more severe. Any of these scenarios could have considerable financial consequences, whether that's the inability to work or the need to pay for greater care needs.
Emma Thomson, Life Office Relationship Director at LifeSearch, commented: “Insurers expanding coverage for serious illness and critical illness to enable more people to claim is welcome news, especially those consumers with families as children’s coverage has been a particular focus. However, despite significant increases in the types of conditions that can be claimed on, cancer remains the top cause of claims and is often the reason why consumers seek cover.”
Yet the majority of protection policies in the UK still only provide cover for one bout of cancer. Plus, replacement cover is hard to find or prohibitively expensive because of new loadings that are then applied. So, it’s vital that adviser check that their clients are covered should they be diagnosed with cancer, even though cancer survival rates are improving. The cover needs to continue to be in place should they be diagnosed with cancer again in the future.
Emma continued; “Finding a policy that has the best cancer coverage should therefore be a key consideration rather than simply choosing a plan that’s cheapest, and a higher number of conditions is not always an indication of better cover. Working out what is the best cover can be tricky, but an independent protection adviser should always be able to help.”
No one wants to hear the dreadful news that cancer is returning. But, if it should happen then how much more reassuring is it to be able to focus on getting well again and the cancer management they need, free from financial pressure.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to further improve the chances of recovery from a cancer diagnosis and of its return. Michael Chapman, director of information and involvement at Cancer Research UK, recently said that the charity was dedicated to improving diagnosis and treatments for all cancers, which is why they’re investing in research to help develop more treatments to give more people more time.
Plus, initiatives such as the research being conducted by 4 Cancer Group with the University of Brighton could also be valuable in understanding how sporting activities could aid recovery and the reoccurrence of cancer. The charity is looking to quantify the impact of sport-based respite programmes in aiding recovery in cancer patients of all ages and its future prevention. This could provide much needed light on the value of physical health benefits as part of cancer care programmes.
Let’s hope that both these research projects help to continue to improve cancer survival rates in the UK, so we become much better placed than other European countries.
Deepak Jobanputra is deputy CEO of VitalityLife
1. CONCORD is an international scientific collaboration, led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, designed to monitor trends in the survival of cancer patients world-wide and enable a comparative evaluation of the effectiveness of health systems in providing cancer care. The research is also used to contribute to the evidence base for national and global policies on cancer control. The third report, was published in the Lancet in January 2018, and is based on an analysis of the clinical records of over 37 million patients from 71 countries, diagnosed with one of 18 types of cancer (2000-2014).
Sources from Vitality Research:
6. Prostate Cancer survival rates and quote from Michael Chapman - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42890405
7. For details of 4Cancer Group and the research they are conduction view more details at: www.4cancer.org and http://www.sail4cancer.org/research-update-March-2018