More than two million years of life are lost to cancer in the UK each year, a first-of-its-kind data analysis by experts has revealed.
Researchers said they hope to provide “a different lens” to assess where cancer health policies have worked and in what areas more needs to be done.
For the study, experts from Cancer Research UK (CRUK), King’s College London and Queen Mary University of London looked at cancer mortality data for 17 cancers and all cancers in the UK from 1988 to 2017, which were provided by the UK Association of Cancer Registries.
They used the age at which cancer patients died from their disease and average life expectancy for the general population to estimate how many years were lost to cancer.
The analysis showed that in the time periods between 1988-1992 and 2013-2017, about 2.2 million and 2.3 million years of lives were lost to the disease in the UK.
Lung cancer made up more than 500,000 years lost annually, with more than 213,000 years lost to bowel cancer and about 197,000 to breast cancer.
Dr Judith Offman, who led the work at King’s College London and is now senior lecturer in cancer prevention and early detection at Queen Mary University of London, said: “This analysis allows us to see the impact cancer has on patients and their families, and the precious time that is lost as a result.
“Measuring years of life lost over a 30-year period provides a different lens to evaluate where health policies and advances in treatment have worked and highlight areas where more needs to be done.
“Research like this is instrumental in helping leaders in health and politics make the best decisions for patients and their loved ones.”
According to the NHS, one in two people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. In the UK, the four most common types of the disease are breast, lung, prostate and bowel cancer.
“Behind statistics are people affected by cancer, and these years of life lost are missed chances to reach milestones and spend precious time with loved ones.”
While the overall number of years lost to cancer has risen by since the 1980s, experts said this was down to a growing population, and that cancer rates have declined by 15% over the 30-year period.
One of the biggest falls was cervical cancer cases, which stood at 43,600 in 1988.
By 2017 there were 21,800 cases, thanks to the cervical cancer screening programme.
CRUK said there “is still work to be done”, however, with cervical cancer still claiming the highest years of life lost per patient (25 years) as it “disproportionately affects younger people”.
Elsewhere, stomach cancer rates were down by 59% and breast cancer cases fell by 39%.
However, other cancers, such as testicular, also contribute a smaller number of lost years overall because they are less common, but researchers said the “impact on individuals is substantial”.
They added: “For example, on average, people with testicular cancer lose 33 years of life, because it is usually diagnosed in younger people. So though relatively few people die from the disease because survival is high, those who do die, are usually younger.”
The paper – published in the British Journal of Cancer – said using the measure of years lost shows “the impact different cancers have on society and puts a higher weight on cancer deaths in younger individuals”.
Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer at NHS England, said: “While cancer touches the lives of so many people every day, these figures show we are making progress: and thanks to NHS efforts a higher proportion of people than ever before are being diagnosed with cancer at an early stage when the disease is easier to treat, and survival is at an all-time high.
“There is more to do, and the NHS continues to test and adopt the latest advances in treatments for patients, alongside national awareness campaigns, screening programmes and early diagnosis drives – which includes taking testing closer to people who need it, with NHS community lung trucks now catching three quarters of lung cancers at stage one and two.
“We won’t stop in our efforts to ensure people are seen and diagnosed as early as possible, and it is vital people continue to come forward if they are concerned about symptoms – getting checked saves lives.”
CRUK welcomed the Government’s announcement last week that they would crack down on smoking by introducing legislation to so that children turning 14 this year or younger will never be legally sold tobacco products.
It is hoped the move will create a smoke-free generation.
However, Ms Mitchell said: “We can’t take our foot off the accelerator now.
“We must see this legislation swiftly implemented, and cancer must be at the top of the agenda for the UK Government.
“That’s why we’re developing a manifesto for cancer research and care; a blueprint of actionable policies to work towards a world where everybody lives longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer. Together, we are beating cancer.”
The charity also called for action from the Government to regulate “junk food” and price promotions to “help people live healthier lives and drive cancer cases down”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Cancer is being diagnosed at an earlier stage more often – with survival rates improving across almost all types of cancer – and we have opened 123 community diagnostic centres to offer quicker, more convenient checks outside of hospitals for conditions such as cancer with over five million additional tests delivered so far.
“Our Major Conditions Strategy will consider the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and management of the six conditions, including cancer, that are responsible for the highest proportion of ill health in England. The UK is already working with world renowned scientists on new cancer vaccine trials and we are growing the size of the specialist workforce to deliver the best possible care.”