More than a million lives have been saved over the last four decades in the UK due to advances in cancer care, according to new analysis.
Cancer Research UK said that since the mid-1980s, UK cancer death rates have fallen by around a quarter.
If these rates had stayed the same then 1.2 million more lives would have been lost to cancer, the charity said.
Progress in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment have all contributed to the fall in cancer deaths, it said.
This includes improvements in radiotherapy; the use of cancer screening programmes; steps taken to prevent cancer in the first place; drug developments and gene discoveries.
But Cancer Research UK said that despite the huge achievement, cancer deaths are still the number one cause of death in the UK.
And advances have not been equal across all cancers, it added.
The charity also raised concerns about the “enormous strain” facing both the NHS and the research sector.
“Thanks to research and progress, a huge number of people in the last 40 years have reached milestones in their lives they didn’t think they’d see and had more invaluable time with their loved ones,” said Cancer Research UK chief executive, Michelle Mitchell.
“The fact that over a million lives have been saved from cancer in this time reflects the power of research.
“Discoveries into more effective and kinder treatments, improvements to screening programmes, and strategies to help detect and prevent cancer have all been essential to this.
“These trends show that together, we are beating cancer – and we couldn’t have made the breakthroughs that have changed people’s lives without the generosity of the British public.
“However, despite these hard-fought gains, the situation for people affected by cancer across the UK remains worrying. Long waiting times are leaving many people facing fear and uncertainty.
“Cancer is a fixable problem, with continued investment in cancer research, strong political leadership, and the continued support of the public, we can build upon the fantastic progress from the last 40 years.”
The charity said that the cancer death rate peaked in 1985 for men and 1989 for women.
Its analysis found that more cancer deaths have been preventing in men, compared to women.
This is partly due to an earlier fall in smoking rates seen among men, it said.
Overall the charity has estimated that since the mid 1980s:
– 560,000 lung cancer deaths have been avoided, largely due to reductions in smoking.
– 236,000 stomach cancer deaths have been averted, which has been attributed to the fact that H Pylori, a type of infection linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer, is no longer common.
– 224,000 bowel cancer deaths have been prevented. Cancer Research UK said that this can partly be attributed to reserach which found that giving patients chemotherapy before surgery helped to shrink tumours, making them easier to remove.
– 17,000 breast cancer death have been avoided, largely linked to the introduction of the breast cancer screening programme and drug developments.
Professor Jean Abraham, lead of the Personalised Breast Cancer Programme at the University of Cambridge, said: “This is a golden era for cancer research. We’ve seen incredible progress in the way that we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.
“In my own field of personalising breast cancer treatments, we’re now able to complete genome sequencing from the lab to the clinic in a matter of days, when 10 years ago it would have taken months.
“This is a game-changer because we can now use a patient’s own unique genetic code to personalise their clinical management. This lets us evaluate exactly what treatments and surgery suits them best as an individual. We can also determine whether a patient’s family need screening for high-risk hereditary genes that cause cancer.
“But for all the progress we’ve made there is so much more about cancer that we don’t know. That is why it’s crucial that we continue pioneering cancer research to save more lives.”
Dame Cally Palmer, NHS national cancer director, said: “From piloting multi-cancer early detection tests to the rollout of lung health checks and the latest precision therapies, NHS teams across the country are making huge progress in the early detection and treatment of cancer and in saving more lives.
“This fantastic progress has been driven by a whole community effort, from more people coming forward, to the impact of awareness campaigns, our brilliant research teams and close collaboration between NHS and cancer charity colleagues – together we can continue to transform the experience and outcome for everyone affected by cancer.
“The NHS has been seeing and treating record numbers of people for cancer, with survival rates now at an all-time high, but it’s vital that people continue to come forward. Please get checked out if you have any worrying signs or symptoms – it could save your life.”
– Cancer Research UK released the figures as it launched its latest campaign called Together We Are Beating Cancer.