NHS risks being overwhelmed by cancer as cases set to jump by a third, warns leading charity

More focus on cancer prevention needed, says Cancer Research UK - PA
More focus on cancer prevention needed, says Cancer Research UK - PA

The NHS risks being overwhelmed by cancer as new cases are expected to jump by a third, a leading charity has warned.

If current trends continue, cancer cases will rise from the 384,000 cases per year now to 506,000 in 2040, according to a new analysis by Cancer Research UK.

Professor Charles Swanton, the charity’s chief clinician, said that the "NHS risks being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new cancer diagnoses" unless the Government takes action.

The report warns that before the pandemic, progress was “too slow” in diagnosing more cancers early - when they are easier to treat.

It adds that “a lot of uncertainty” remains around the full impact of pandemic on early diagnosis.

Most of the expected rise can be attributed to an ageing population, but obesity and smoking are also contributing to the increase, the charity said.

Around four in 10 cancer cases are preventable, with overweight or obesity causing around 23,000 cases of cancer every year in the UK and smoking causing around 55,000 cases every year.

Funding cuts to stop smoking support programmes, as well as pandemic disruption, means the services are not available to everyone who wants to quit, the charity said.

The proportion of people accessing stop smoking services has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, where it dropped by almost a fifth, it added.

It also noted the pandemic significantly impacted breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are laser-focused on fighting cancer on all fronts – prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research and funding – so we can deliver the best possible outcomes for patients.

“More patients are being diagnosed and starting treatment earlier with 92 community diagnostic centres open since 2021 delivering over 2.8 million tests, scans and checks including to detect cancer. We also recently announced a £10 million investment in more breast cancer screening units as well as software and service upgrades."

By 2040 the charity predicts there will be 208,000 cancer deaths in the UK each year – an increase of almost a quarter from the 167,000 seen now.

In total, there could be 8.4 million new cases of cancer and 3.5 million cancer deaths in the UK between 2023 and 2040.
The majority of cases and deaths will be in people aged 70 and over.

Cancer survival in the UK currently lags behind that of other comparable countries, while the NHS is not on track to hit its target of diagnosing 75 per cent of cancers at stage 1 or 2 by 2028.

It said the UK was not on track to meet its target of creating a Smokefree England by 2030, while junk food marketing restrictions have been "pushed back" even further by the Government.

The charity also said the Government’s recently announced Major Conditions Strategy does not go far enough to help the NHS face the challenges ahead.

Michelle Mitchell, CRUK chief executive, said: “Today’s analysis provides a stark reminder of the challenges the NHS in England is set to face in years to come. Cancer patients are already facing unacceptably long waits for diagnosis and treatment, and staff in cancer services are working very hard.”

It is calling on the government to publish a 10-year fully funded cancer plan to transform cancer survival in the UK.

Former Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, declared a “war on cancer” in February last year and committed to publishing such a plan. But no such strategy ever materialised.

In a series of recommendations, the charity is calling for more focus on prevention strategies to help alleviate pressures on the NHS.

It recommends implementing the recommendations of the Khan Review to make smoking “obsolete”, transforming diagnostic services, improving access to treatments, investing in research and in staff and equipment.

Prof Swanton said: “Right now, the NHS is just about treading water. By the end of the next decade, if left unaided, the NHS risks being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new cancer diagnoses. It takes 15 years to train an oncologist, pathologist, radiologist or surgeon. The Government must start planning now to give patients the support they will so desperately need.

“I’m hopeful that through investment and reform in the health service and advancements in research, future numbers of cancer cases might not be as high as these projections warn. But if the Government doesn’t act now to prepare for this demand, there’s a risk that our hard-fought progress in cancer survival could go into reverse.”

The figures show that the number of people diagnosed with kidney cancer every year is projected to increase by 61 per cent between 2017-2019 and 2038-2040, from around 13,600 to around 21,900.

Over the same period, the number of men diagnosed with prostate cancer is projected to rise by 55 per cent, from around 54,800 to around 85,100.

Meanwhile, the number of women dying from womb cancer could rise by 68 per cent between 2018-2021 and 2038-2040, from around 2,500 to around 4,200.

Over the same period, deaths from liver cancer are projected to jump from around 6,000 to around 9,500 ever year.
Skin cancer cases and pancreatic cancer cases will also rise.