Thousands of people living longer with most advanced cancers

By agency reporter
November 9, 2017

There are thousands of people alive in England who have survived for several years with the most advanced stage of cancer, according to new research from Macmillan Cancer Support and Public Health England’s National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service.

The research is based on data from England’s national cancer registry. It shows that at least 17,000 people have survived for two years or more after being diagnosed with stage four cancer – the stage at which the disease has already spread to at least one other part of their body.

This includes:

  • At least 1,600 women diagnosed with stage four breast cancer
  • At least 6,400 men diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer
  • At least 1,200 people diagnosed with stage four lung cancer
  • At least 2,300 people diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer

The figures are based on people in England who were diagnosed with one of ten common types of cancer between 2012 and 2013, and were still alive at the end of 2015.  This is the first time that data showing the number of people in England living several years after being diagnosed with stage four cancer has been available.

Macmillan Cancer Support says the new figures highlight the changing nature of cancer. There are now thousands of people who have been diagnosed with the most advanced stage of cancer, which in most cases cannot be cured, but new and improved treatment and care means they are able to live for several years. Patients who previously had more limited options could now see their cancer become more ‘treatable’ and manageable, like other chronic illnesses.

The charity warns that these patients often face a complex range of issues, including living with uncertainty over how their cancer will progress, and having to make difficult decisions about potentially life-extending treatment and the effect on their quality of life.

Carol Fenton, 55, from London was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in 2015. She says, “Since my diagnosis, I have learnt how to adjust and come to terms with my new self. I am still Carol – a mother, wife, sister, friend and colleague. I am learning to live with a progressive disease and uncertainty every day.  Life can be a bit of a ‘rollercoaster’, sometimes my symptoms are very settled, then there are changes in my scan results and new treatments start and it all changes again.  

“It is hard to plan family activities a long way into the future so we plan our life around my three-monthly scans. I’m concentrating on what I can do, rather than what I can’t, and I’m hoping that I will stay as well as possible for as long as possible, yet being realistic about preparing for when my condition progresses, not knowing if this will be in a few months, a year or within five years or more.”

Adrienne Betteley, Macmillan Cancer Support’s Specialist Advisor for End of Life Care, said, “These figures – available for the first time – show that thousands of people in England are now beating expectations and living longer with cancer, even after being diagnosed at stage four. This is because advances in treatment and care mean that a growing number of people have cancer that cannot be cured, but can be managed by treatments that alleviate the symptoms and may also prolong their life.

“This is really positive news, but living with advanced cancer can be a difficult situation to be in. As well as dealing with the physical symptoms of cancer, having multiple hospital appointments, scans and treatment options to contend with, there’s also the emotional and psychological impact of having an uncertain future.

“Everyone who supports cancer patients, including doctors, nurses and cancer charities, needs to learn how we can best help people in this situation, whether it is by providing information on side effects of treatment, or giving practical support such as advice on arranging financial matters. We want people to live for as long as they can, but also as well as they can, with cancer.”

Dr Jem Rashbass, cancer lead at Public Health England said, "It is really encouraging that higher quality data means we can better analyse the impact of an advanced cancer diagnosis.

"This Public Health England cancer registry data is an invaluable resource in helping us to track improvements in cancer outcomes and gain more understanding of the implications for those living with and beyond a cancer diagnosis.

“The fact remains that the earlier you get diagnosed with cancer the better, that is why Public Health England's Be Clear on Cancer campaigns aim to educate the public on the signs and symptoms of cancer."

* Public Health England https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/public-health-england

* Macmillan Cancer Support https://www.macmillan.org.uk/

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