More than 2 million years of life are lost to cancer each year

Over two million years of life are lost to cancer in the UK every year, according to a new study from Cancer Research UK, published today in the British Journal of Cancer 

Experts from Cancer Research UK and King’s College London 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.  

This is the first statistical analysis of this kind from the charity showing how much precious time is being lost to the disease.   

“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,” said Dr Judith Offman, who led the study.   

“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.” 

The charity is calling on the UK Government to drive progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, invest in research and innovation, and address chronic staff and equipment shortages within the NHS.  

Lost time 

The study found that around a fifth of the total lost years, more than 500,000 per year, are from lung cancer, due to the high number of people diagnosed and poor survival.  

More than 213,000 years of life are lost to bowel cancer each year and around 197,000 to breast cancer.   

The analysis also shows that cancer types like liver, melanoma and kidney have had increases in rates of years of life lost, largely because of increases in numbers of cases.    

Some cancers, like testicular, contribute a smaller number of lost years overall because they are less common – but their impact on individuals is substantial. 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.   

A silver lining

However, the data also showed that thanks to innovation and research, we are making progress in beating cancer.  

The total number of years of life lost to cervical cancer in 1988 was around 43,600. But thanks to the effectiveness of the cervical screening programme in reducing the number of cases and diagnosing people earlier, this number plummeted to around 21,800 in 2017. But there is still work to be done. 

In addition, whilst overall numbers of years of life lost per year to all cancers combined has risen since the 1980s, this is largely due to our growing population. Over the 30-year study period, the rate of years of life lost each year has decreased by 15%. 

The biggest decreases in these rates have been in stomach (down by 59%), cervical (down by 58%) and breast cancers (down by 39%).   

We can’t stop now 

The UK now has the opportunity to continue this progress.  

Great gains could be made through measures to prevent more cancers – smoking causes 70% of lung cancer cases, and obesity is linked with 13 different types of cancer, including bowel and breast. 

Cancer Research UK urges all MPs to support the recently announced age of sale legislation on tobacco products so the UK Government can swiftly implement it, and welcome the promised investment in stop smoking services.  

Action on junk food regulation and price promotions will also help people live healthier lives and drive cancer cases down. 

“This new analysis is a stark reminder of the impact cancer has on so many people’s lives in the UK today,” says Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK.  

“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.  

“The Prime Minister’s announcement last week on raising the age of sale on tobacco products was a welcome step against the biggest cause of cancer – smoking.   

“But 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.”  

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