It used to be that a cancer diagnosis meant a shortened life with most kinds not being “curable.” Now, survival rates for most types of cancers have been extended with better diagnosis and treatment. In fact, in the United Kingdom now, half of those people diagnosed with cancer survive for well over 10 years.
A research study in England and Wales shows that 50 percent of those diagnosed with cancer will survive for a decade or far longer. That number was only 24 percent in 1971. In fact, a little over 40 years ago, 50 percent died within one year.
The study, from Cancer Research UK, looked at seven million British cancer patients diagnosed between 1971 and 2011. The researchers concluded that, with today’s treatments, half will survive at least 10 years as which point their prognosis is the same as those who were not diagnosed with cancer. Experts hail the findings as a “tipping point.” They expressed the hope that the dramatic improvements in diagnosis and treatment will mean that cancer will soon be viewed as a chronic condition rather than the end.
Dr. Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, noted that, not very long ago cancer was thought of as a death sentence, but nowadays half of all patients diagnosed with cancer will survive at least 10 years afterwards. He added that the 50 percent figure is a tipping point because the survival rates today should “change the way we should be thinking about cancer,” Kumar said.
Professor Michel Coleman from London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, noted that, as a whole, patients who have survived more than a decade do not “have any different chances of surviving than the rest of the population – in that sense, it would represent a ’cure.’”
While the overall data presented was positive, the research and resulting “all-cancers survival index” was developed using data for 17 types of cancer. The results show significant improvements in survival rates in recent decades for some of the most common cancers, such as breast, prostate and testes. The 10-year survival rate for testicular cancer rose from 69 percent to 98 percent, and rates for malignant skin cancer jumped from 46 percent to 89 percent. The breast cancer survival rate is now 78 percent, nearly double what it was in 1971. Lastly, men living more than 20 years after a prostate cancer diagnosis jumped dramatically from 25 percent to 80 percent.
Not all the news was positive, however. There were six cancer types that do not have a 50 percent survival rate for a decade. Leukemia is close, having gone from a 7 percent survival rate in the 1970s to 46 percent now. The rates for those who live 10 years after being identified with cancers of the stomach, brain, and esophagus have improved, but not much, having gone from 4-6 percent up to 12-15 percent.
The cancers with the worst survival rates are lung and pancreas. They still offer little hope, with only 5 percent (up from 3 percent) of those with lung cancer surviving 10 years and those with pancreatic cancer showing no progress in the past few decades and only 1 percent surviving.
Acknowledging the fact that half of those diagnosed with cancer in the UK live more than 10 years, Kumar pointed that they hope that “20 years from now, we want to see three quarters of all patients surviving at least 10 years following a diagnosis of cancer.” He noted that it would be a big step forward, but his organization believes it is achievable.
By Dyanne Weiss