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Less Survivable Cancer Taskforce report calls for urgent action on faster diagnosis

The Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce (LSCT) is calling for focus, prioritisation and investment in order to speed up the detection and diagnosis of the UK’s deadliest cancers.

The LSCT represents six less survivable cancers, lung, liver, brain, oesophageal, pancreatic and stomach, with an average five-year survival rate of just 16% due to a legacy of neglect and underfunding. Together, these ‘less survivable cancers’ make up half of all common cancer deaths in the UK.

The LSCT is made up of Pancreatic Cancer UK, Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, The Brain Tumour Charity, Action Against Heartburn, Guts UK, and British Liver Trust.

A new report from LSCT highlights the overwhelming evidence that late diagnosis of cancer leads to poorer outcomes and that less survivable cancers are far more likely to be diagnosed at a late stage.

Around one third of patients with a less survivable cancer will only be diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital. This delay accounts, in part, for the catastrophic prognoses for thousands of people each year. For other common cancers, the proportion diagnosed at such a late stage is just 15% and the average five-year survival rate is markedly higher at 69%.

The report explains that the reasons for later diagnosis are varied but a significant factor is that symptoms of less survivable cancers tend to be non-specific and most of the general public are unaware of them.

For brain tumours for example, two of the most common symptoms are headaches and nausea. This ambiguity often means that patients delay seeking medical help.

Victoria, 23, from Dundee, was diagnosed with a low grade brain tumour when she was 11. She has now been in remission for 10 years and has a degree from one of the top art schools in Scotland, runs her own photography business and is about to embark on a degree in teaching.

But Victoria faced many obstacles trying to access the appropriate medical help.

Victoria suffered from persistent localised headaches from the age of four years old, as well as unexplained weight gain.

“On a weekly basis, my parents took me to our local GP in Dundee, where time after time we were told it was nothing to worry about. The GP said it was probably to do with my diet, or growth pains – at one point I was even told I was attention seeking. Not once was a scan offered.

“After seeing our GP for five years with the same symptoms, we were eventually sent to a Neurologist in Aberdeen, who also couldn’t find a reason for my headaches. My parents had had enough, and turned to the private sector so I could have an MRI scan.

“I will never forget the day I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. I was 11 years old and terrified. I was in an MRI machine, and my mum was dancing to make me smile during the scan, and then all of a sudden her face dropped. I could tell something was wrong.”

“I want to help improve early diagnosis in children – because if my tumour was found earlier, things could have been very different.”

Closing the gap

The LSCT is also concerned that screening programmes for less survivable cancers are limited or non-existent in the UK and fast routes to diagnosis aren’t clear for GPs.

The Taskforce shared data this year showing that the UK ranks as one of the world’s worst countries for diagnosing and treating less survivable cancers.

In addition to this, research has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has further delayed the diagnosis of all cancers and exacerbated an already dire situation.

This is simply unacceptable and we are proud to stand together with these other charities behind this call for urgent action.

The report makes a number of recommendations to close the deadly gap on cancer inequality:

  • A restart of cancer awareness campaigns, with a focus on raising awareness of symptoms of less survivable cancers
  • An increased focus on early diagnosis and ensuring GPs are well equipped to recognise the vague and non-specific symptoms of the less survivable cancers
  • Rapid Diagnostic Centres (RDCs) should be rolled out across the UK, working closely with GPs, to ensure people with non-specific symptoms that could be cancer have access to fast and efficient diagnostics
  • A clear strategy should be implemented by the NHS in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for surveillance of people with liver disease for liver cancer
  • Targeted screening for lung cancer should be rolled out across the UK
  • UK governments and research institutes should support trials into early diagnosis
  • UK governments should work with research partners to speed up the trials of Cytosponge and roll out its usage, to help diagnose Barrett’s oesophagus and reduce pressure on endoscopy backlogs

Anna Jewell, of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce said:

Less survivable cancers have been left behind for far too long and the time from diagnosis to death for anyone who has one of these cancers is brutally short. Our evidence of better outcomes for people diagnosed with more survivable cancers shows that it is possible to increase life expectancies but we urgently need a whole system approach to diagnosing the less survivable cancers earlier and faster.

“In addition to increased public awareness of symptoms, GPs need support in terms of resources and equipment as well as access to rapid diagnostic centres for their patients.

The situation is critical. The COVID-19 pandemic has put an enormous strain on our health service but we must continue to act for people affected by these devastating diseases and give them a fighting chance.

“We are urging ministers, health service leaders, researchers and healthcare professionals to work with us and our patients to make the recommendations in this report a reality.”

The LSCT aims to double the survivability of less survivable cancers to 28% by 2029.

The LSCT is made up of Pancreatic Cancer UK, Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, The Brain Tumour Charity, Action Against Heartburn, Guts UK, and British Liver Trust. It is supported by: Pancreatic Cancer Action, OCHRE, Brainstrust, HCCUK, Heartburn Cancer UK, OG Cancer NI, Brain Tumour Research, Barrett’s Oesophagus