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Cancer: Thousands surviving in UK decades after diagnosis


More than 170,000 people in the UK who were diagnosed with cancer up to 40 years ago are still alive, a report by Macmillan Cancer Support shows.

The charity says people are twice as likely to survive for at least a decade after being diagnosed than they were at the start of the 1970s.

It says better treatments and speedier diagnoses are among the reasons.

But it warns that for many survivors, cancer leaves a lifelong legacy of side-effects that cannot be ignored.

A report by the charity, called Cancer Then and Now, looks at diagnosis, care and survival.

‘Outdated treatments’

Macmillan experts say an “extraordinary” number of people are now alive many years after they were diagnosed, thanks to improvements in health care that also include better screening to spot cancers early on.

But it warns that thousands of people struggle with the physical, emotional and financial effects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment for many years afterwards.

And some, particularly people who have survived or lived with cancer for many decades, will be living with the consequences of now outdated treatments with often more severe side-effects.

The review estimates around a quarter of survivors will have long-term issues that need support.

Helen Taskiran
Image captionHelen has survived five different types of cancer, she told BBC News

Helen Taskiran told BBC News she suffered from depression as a result of surviving cancer, and missed out on job opportunities because of it.

She was first diagnosed in 1991 with bowel cancer, which she survived, but since then has been diagnosed with four other cancers, including breast, skin and womb.

“They’ve left me with swollen arms and legs, tiredness, sometimes depression, [making me] dubious about going for other jobs,” she said.

A total of 625,000 people in the UK are currently suffering with depression after cancer treatment, Macmillan Cancer Support said.


‘I felt guilty at myself’

Two pictures of Greig Trout - one as a sick child and one as a healthy adultImage copyrightPA

Greig Trout survived cancer at the age of seven, and again at 30, but he says the worst part of his battle was after his second all-clear.

He says he became “gripped by anxiety, and the fear of cancer coming back, or the fear that maybe it hadn’t gone”.

“I felt guilty, angry at myself,” says Mr Trout, now 37 and from Thames Ditton in south-west London.

“At times I was thinking ‘am I ungrateful for feeling this way after having survived when so many others don’t?’.”

Read more about his story


Prof Jane Maher, chief medical officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “We now see fewer of the big side-effects, such as an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, we saw after treatment in the 1970s and 80s.

“But some of the effects doctors consider ‘small’, such as fatigue and poor bowel control, can have a profound impact on someone’s quality of life.

“Sadly there is no cancer treatment available at the moment that does not carry a risk of side-effects.”

And Macmillan says as more and more people survive long-term with cancer, more needs to be done to make sure they get the right care.

The organisation says it has evolved from being a handful of nurses providing end-of-life care in the 1970s to a much bigger network that even includes benefits advisers.

Patient - file picture
Image captionThe government is planning tailored recovery packages

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “The fact that more people are surviving cancer is excellent news, due in no small part to the work of NHS staff who carry out the diagnosis, treatment and care to help patients beat the disease.

“To help, we announced last year that by 2020 people diagnosed with cancer in England will benefit from an individually tailored recovery package.

“This was originally developed by Macmillan Cancer Support, and I would like to pay tribute to the charity’s enormous effort in this area over many years.”

‘Increasing pressures’

Meanwhile the Welsh government said it welcomed the improvements, but a spokeswoman said “the numbers of people experiencing cancer in their lifetime are increasing and this is set against a backdrop of increasing pressures on NHS resources”.

Nell Barrie, of Cancer Research UK, welcomed the “huge progress” in improving cancer survival but stressed it was important to continue focusing on “world-leading science to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment, especially for the harder-to-treat cancers like lung, brain and pancreatic cancer”.