Coping with Cancer: The Challenge Facing the NHS

To get an idea of the enormity of the challenge facing the NHS when it comes to coping with cancer, consider this statistic: cancer is now so common that one in two people born after 1960 will develop the disease at some point in their lifetime, according to Cancer Research.

Another way of looking at is that someone in England is diagnosed with cancer every two minutes. Given these sobering statistics, it’s hardly surprising that the NHS is struggling to cope with cancer.

Despite the billions of pounds invested in researching and treating cancer, the disease continues to affect the lives of an increasingly large percentage of the population. The main reason for the rise in cancer, of course, is the fact we are living longer. However, lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking and obesity also play a role in the susceptibility of an individual to developing the disease.

The number of cancer diagnoses has more than doubled over the past 40 years, as the graph below shows. This graph displays statistical data collated by the Office for National Statistics.

chart showing incidence of cancer

Coping with Cancer: A System Under Pressure

The NHS is struggling to cope with cancer – both financially and logistically. The disease is putting a huge strain on the system, and although a new five-year plan to reduce the waiting time for cancer test results was recently announced by NHS England’s cancer taskforce, the plan only deals with cases of cancer in England – but the health service across the UK is struggling to meet its targets.

Of all the cancer-related targets that the NHS is struggling to meet, arguably the most high-profile one is the 62-day deadline for cancer patients to commence treatment following an urgent referral by a GP. Each country in the UK endeavours to meet this particular target, and although how it is measured differs slightly in each country, they all have one thing in common: none of them are meeting their target.

62 day target for cancer treatment


The problems faced by the NHS when dealing with cancer are similar to the issues experienced by A&E and other routine hospital services. But for cancer patients, the ability of the NHS to overcome these obstacles and meet their targets is arguably even more important. The faster patients receive treatment for their cancer, the greater their chance of survival.

Cancer Survival Rates

Although cancer is on the rise, the number of deaths is not. Survival rates have been increasing steadily for several decades. Research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows that five-year cancer survival rates have risen significantly since the 1970s. In fact, while fewer than a third of patients diagnosed with the disease during 1971-2 lived for another five years, now more than half do.

chart showing cancer survival rates 5 years after diagniosis


The chance of surviving cancer varies greatly depending on which type of cancer you have. Among male cancer patients, five-year survival rates for testicular cancer stand at 97%, skin melanomas 90% and Hodgkin lymphoma 84%. But the survival rates among men with lung cancer and pancreatic cancer are just 11% and 5% respectively.
Among women, the survival rates for lung cancer and pancreatic cancer are the same, while the survival rate for skin melanomas is 93%, thyroid cancer 87% and breast cancer 86%.

Despite the overall improvement in cancer survival rates, it is clear the NHS has a long way to go before it achieves the same level of success as the best-performing health systems from around the world.

A recent report by the Nuffield Trust think tank looked at how the UK was coping with cancer compared to 14 international healthcare systems. The report looked at how the NHS handles the diagnosis and treatment of three common cancers, and from the report it is clear there is still room for improvement. The mortality rates detailed in the Nuffield Trust report only date back to 2010, but still give a good indication of how far the NHS is behind other countries.

nhs compared to international healthcare systems

Improving Cancer Services

The main focus of England’s new cancer strategy is improving earlier diagnosis of cancer and reducing instances of late cancer diagnosis. At present, half of all cancer patients are currently diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease, with only a fifth of diagnoses being made after a visit to an A&E department.

Dominic Graham, specialist clinical negligence compensation solicitor at Blackwater Law, said:

“Whilst cancer survival rates have increased, broadly speaking, there are still certain forms of the disease for which 5-year survival rates are still staggeringly low. This fact, combined with the Nuffield Trust’s benchmarking of UK survival rates against those of other countries, shows there is still more that can be done to increase patient survival rates for many forms of cancer here in the UK. This must start with improving rates of early diagnosis which will in turn provide for more effective treatment and better outcomes for patients.”

Lifestyle Plays a Part Too

For all the emphasis and importance placed on improving the quality of care afforded to cancer patients and those suspected of having the disease, there is a lot people can do themselves to minimise the risk of developing the disease in the first instance. The old adage that “prevention is better than cure” is never more true than when it comes to cancer, and it is estimated that four in 10 cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyles, such as stopping smoking, exercising more and eating more healthily.