Longer survival times for people with cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

Many cancer patients  survive their disease nearly six times longer than they did 40 years ago, but more needs to be done to improve progress across all types of the disease, according to a report from Macmillan Cancer Support.

The overall average survival time is six years, with people with 11 of the 20 cancer types studied surviving their disease for more than five years.

People with bowel cancer have seen the largest surge in survival times, with a 17-fold increase to 10 years from seven months. The survival time for breast cancer has been more than 10 years since the early 1990s, double the figure in the 1970s.

Years have been added to the survival times for sufferers of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

But for the nine other cancers there has been little improvement since the 1970s, with the survival times on average being three years or less. For brain, lung and pancreatic cancer, survival time is still measured in weeks, not years.

Brain cancer survival times are up from 13 weeks to 28 weeks, and lung cancer is up from 11 to 20 weeks. But there has been just a three-week increase in survival time for people with pancreatic cancer, which now stands at 12 weeks.

The study used median relative survival time to work out the averages by calculating when half of patients are still alive after being diagnosed. 

Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, said the report showed "the real picture of how long people are living after a cancer diagnosis.

"But the good news is tempered by the shocking variation between cancer types. Though we can celebrate increasing median survival times for some cancers such as breast and colon cancers, there has been lamentably poor progress made for lung and pancreatic cancer. It is clear that much, much more money needs to be put into research, surgery and treatment for the cancers with the poorest prognosis.

Sarah Lyness, executive director of policy and information at Cancer Research UK, said: "It's really good news that people with cancer are, on average, living up to six times longer than in the 1970s. This progress is thanks to research that led to better diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and Cancer Research UK played an important role in that work.

"But this success isn't seen across the board, so it's important that we continue our research on cancers that have shown little progress such as lung, stomach, oesophageal, pancreas and brain cancer. Spotting cancer early improves the chances that treatment is successful - so if you notice an unusual change in your body it's a good idea to see your doctor."

Copyright Press Association 2011