There are more than 200 different types of cancer, but breast, lung, large bowel (colorectal) and prostate cancer account for over half of all new cases.Lung cancer is the biggest cancer-related killer (22% of all cancer-related deaths in the UK), followed by large bowel cancer (11%), breast cancer (8%) and prostate cancer (6%).
The Department of Health launched its NHS Cancer Plan in 2000 as a way to tackle the issue and appointed a 'cancer tsar', Professor Mike Richards, to head the effort.
Since then, cancer services are more coordinated, more patients are seen by specialist teams, there is faster access to services, survival rates are increasing and deaths rates are falling.
Although the incidence of cancer is increasing – there has been a 1.4% increase in new cases per year – overall mortality is decreasing. Between 1994 and 2004, the death rate for all malignancies fell by 14% for men and 10% for women.
The death rate from breast cancer has been falling since 1990. This is likely to be due to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatments. A total of 14,370 women in the UK died from breast cancer in 1994, but this fell to 12,417 by 2004.
Apart from direct interventions such as more investment in cancer services and more specialist staff, there have been efforts to tackle the disease in other ways – such as tobacco control and attempts to reduce the numbers of people smoking – thought to be the biggest cause of cancer.
A ban on tobacco advertising, increasing tax on cigarettes, smoking cessation services, and a forthcoming ban on smoking in public places (already in place in Scotland) are all thought to be helping in the effort to stop people smoking.
The problem, however, is likely to grow as the UK has an increasingly older population and two-thirds of cancer develops in patients over 65. Experts are predicting that because there will be a 50% increase in the number of people over 65 by 2030, this will mean another 90,000 cancer cases each year to deal with.
This has prompted recent calls from the likes of charity Cancer Research UK and the King’s Fund for a new NHS cancer plan.
Many services exist to help people with cancer including charities Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care, who provide nurses as well as other help.
Updated: September 2006