cancer cells attackingMore than 170,000 people are alive despite being diagnosed with cancer more than 25 years ago, a new report by Macmillan Cancer Support has found.

Macmillan’s report, ‘Cancer: Then and Now’, reveals for the first time the number of cancer survivors from the 1970s and 1980s in the UK. People are now on average twice as likely to survive at least 10 years after being diagnosed with cancer as they were at the start of the 1970s. These improvements in survival are partly due to earlier diagnosis – by way of screening programmes and advances in diagnostic tools, as well as more refined treatment. 

The figures were taken from research by Macmillan Cancer Support and Public Health England’s National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service.

The report compares the diagnosis, treatment and care of cancer then, to the experiences of cancer in the 2010s. While documenting drastic improvements over this time, particularly in available treatments, it also acts as a stark reminder that cancer continues to be a devastating diagnosis and one that affects a person long after their treatment has finished.

However, while people are now living much longer, many who survive after a cancer diagnosis do not necessarily have a good quality of life. Macmillan estimates that there could be about 42,500 people living with cancer who were diagnosed in the 1970s and 1980s who may still be dealing with problems linked to their cancer, such as long-term side effects. Currently, 2.5 million people in the UK are living with cancer, and this is estimated to increase to 4 million people by 2035.

Helen Taskiran, 60, from London, was diagnosed with bowel cancer 25 years ago. She said: “It all started in the 1980s with a change to my bowel habits and progressed to excruciating pains. The doctors came up with all sorts of theories of what was wrong from changing hormones to Irritable Bowel Syndrome to not eating enough fibre.

“When I asked for a prognosis, they told me I’d be lucky to survive six months and CT scans weren’t widely available so it was a scary time of wait and see. I’ve since been treated for multiple cancers but the first, for bowel cancer, which was eventually diagnosed in 1991, has had the biggest impact on my life. I’m still alive but have suffered years with a long list of side effects: constant diarrhoea, swollen knees and ankles, insomnia, bouts of depression and bowel blockages. I deal with them by having a liquid diet and lots of rest but sometimes it is so bad I end up in A&E.”

Jane Maher, Chief Medical Officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “With so many people alive today who were diagnosed with cancer in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s clear that having cancer is no longer necessarily the death sentence it once was; that is a cause for celebration. But while it is not always life-ending, it is life-changing and we need to ensure that people who have had the disease or who are living with it have a good quality of life and tailored, appropriate support.

“We know that thousands of people are living with the consequences of yesterday’s treatments, illnesses such as heart disease or osteoporosis. They may also be dealing with other issues that are a result of their cancer such as money worries if they are too ill to work. In the future we will have even more people living with cancer in the long-term. Our health service needs to be equipped to meet the increasing demand over the coming years.”

Lynda Thomas, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, added: “Today’s report highlights the ever-changing story of cancer in this country. And today we launch our brand new advertising campaign which highlights the breadth of Macmillan services available today to help people not only cope with the devastating news that they have cancer, but the impact this has on their work, finances, relationships and of course, their health. We’re still here, as we were decades ago, to reach as many people affected by this disease as we can – as the numbers rise and their needs get more complex.”