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Cancer detection and prevention: a message for World Cancer Day, 4 February 2016

2015 proved a turbulent year for national and international politics – but the news that dominated the New Year was cancer, with musicians Lemmy and David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman all dying of the disease within days of each other.

“These deaths occurring so close together were widely regarded as a tragic coincidence,” says Gordon Wishart, Professor of Cancer Surgery and Medical Director of Check4Cancer. “Unfortunately they are indicative of general trends, and we are likely to see this more often. Celebrity cases can help focus attention on efforts to combat the disease, but the important message we need to get across is that cancer affects us all. One in two people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime, so if it is not us, it will be someone we know.”

World Cancer Day on 4 February aims to drive this point home, as well as highlighting what we can do about it – and while cancer is on the increase, there is good news mixed with the bad.

According to figures from Cancer Research UK, 338,623 people in the UK were diagnosed with cancer in 2012 – that’s 590.5 people per 100,000 of the population. Cancers of the breast, lung, prostate and bowel accounted for over half (53%) of all new cancer cases. There were also 161,823 deaths from cancer (168.6 people per 100,000 of the population) with cancers of the lung, bowel, breast and prostate accounting for almost half (46%).

The overall message may spell out a warning, but it is not one of doom; we are also making significant strides in treating the disease. The number of people surviving cancer has actually doubled over the past 40 years, with the proportion of people surviving ten years or more now standing at 50%. That means that every day in the UK there are more than 400 people diagnosed with cancer who will survive the disease for more than 10 years. Women with breast cancer now have a 78% chance of surviving at least a decade, compared to only 40% 40 years ago.

Ten-year survival for men with testicular cancer has jumped from 69 to 98% since the 1970s and, for people diagnosed with malignant melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer – 10-year survival has leapt from 46 to 89%.

According to Cancer Research UK, 42% of cancer cases are also linked to major lifestyle and other factors and are therefore entirely preventable. Cancer Research UK is leadinga new strategy to accelerate this progress with the ambition that 75% of all cancer patients diagnosed in 20 years time will survive at least 10 years.

“To demonstrate this,” explains Prof Wishart, “one need only look at breast cancer versus lung cancer. Breast cancer has a very high awareness level and is subject to national screening. Detection rates are therefore high, and survival rates follow suit: 2011 figures for breast cancer show around 50,000 cases per annum in the UK, with 11,716 deaths from this disease in 2012.

“By contrast, lung cancer is hard to detect if you are not specifically testing for it, and there is no national screening programme. As a result, around 90% of cases come to light due to symptoms such as weight loss or a cough – at which point, it is usually too late for curative treatment. Levels of lung cancer are slightly lower than those for breast cancer – 43,463 new cases in the UK in 2011 – but the number of deaths is more than triple: 35,371 in the UK in 2012.” Just 5% of lung cancer patients diagnosed today are expected to survive 10 years. “Giving up smoking is the biggest single step you can take towards reducing your cancer risk – tobacco is recognised as the single most preventable cause of death in the world.” This cannot wipe out the legacy of previous decades, however, and of damage already done.

The key weapon we have to fight this is early detection. “If all cancers were detected as effectively as breast cancer and cervical cancer currently are, we would save literally thousands of lives in the UK alone. One way to do this – the way we actively promote at Check4Cancer – is in the workplace.”

Of the 325,000 people diagnosed with cancer each year, over 100,000 are of working age, and estimates suggest that over 750,000 people of working age are now living with a cancer diagnosis. According to a Cancer Research UK report, 46% of these cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are far harder to treat successfully. In September 2015, Unum reported that cancer is the biggest cause of long-term sickness claims, accounting for almost three out of 10 (29%) long-term sickness claims paid in the past year. It is very much in the interest of businesses, therefore, to get involved in the fight against cancer.

“This is the reason we established Check4Cancer – to provide another way for individuals to access cancer-specific tests, through regular employee benefits or one-off campaigns run by their employers. The message we want to get across to employers is that treating mid- to late-stage cancer through health insurance schemes can cost tens of thousands of pounds, and is less likely to result in a positive outcome. If the employer can help the employee to detect it early, however, treatment costs less and is far more likely to be successful. In short, it saves money and lives – a win for all concerned.”

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