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UK cancer levels rise to one in two

February 2015: This week saw a BBC news report on cancer that contained shocking news for the UK. ‘Half of UK people will get cancer’ revealed that one in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.

Recently, the message from cancer research bodies has been that one in three people will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime, with Macmillan projecting that we would reach one in two by 2020. Cancer Research UK’s new method of calculating this figure, based on men diagnosed in 1960, reveals that this level is already a reality.

Although these figures relate to all types of cancer, subsequent BBC reports – in particular, new figures showing a 12% increase in cancer in Wales since 2004 focused particularly on lung cancer. In a bid to help tackle the issue, hospitals across Wales are considering on-the-spot fines for people smoking on site and near entrance routes, and we are told that ‘some hospitals have already employed people to guide smokers off hospital grounds.’

It’s perhaps not surprising that lung cancer is afforded special attention; amongst the six most common cancers (lung, breast, prostate, bowel, skin and cervical account for 85% of cancer cases) lung cancer emerges as by far the biggest killer.

To put this in perspective, 2011 figures for breast cancer – a cancer that we are good at detecting and treating – show around 50,000 cases per annum in the UK, with only 11,716 deaths as a result of this disease in 2012.

Levels of lung cancer are somewhat lower – 43,463 new cases in UK in 2011 – but by comparison the number of deaths is huge: 35,371 in the UK in 2012. And this at a time, when, according to Sean Duffy, the national clinical director for cancer at NHS England, survival rates for lung cancer are at an all-time high.

The key difficulty with lung cancer is that around 90% of cases come to light as a result of symptoms such as weight loss or a cough – which by then is too late for surgery or other curative treatments. There is no national screening programme, and professional bodies have long debated the best methods for detection – chest x-rays, CT scans and even low-dose CT scans all have their disadvantages.

But for those already in high risk groups, there is – potentially – some good news. Professor Gordon Wishart, Medical Director of Check4Cancer, explains: ‘There’s a new blood test called Early CDT-Lung, which detects antibodies made by the body in response to lung cancer. NHS Scotland is currently running a randomised trial, monitoring 10,000 men at high risk. This is a very exciting study, which I hope will demonstrate there is an effective and reliable method for detecting lung cancers at a stage where they are still curable. Hopefully, this will be expanded into a European study and indicate a way forward for health services in the UK.’

Meanwhile, it’s down to private and corporate sectors to lead on this issue, with the test being made available in the workplace through screening bodies such as Check4Cancer.

The example of breast cancer shows us what can be done. Given reliable methods of early detection, we have a very real opportunity to fight back at lung cancer, and cut deaths from this disease to the lower levels of other cancers

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