Death rates in top four cancer killers fall by a third over 20 years


Death rates for breast, bowel, lung and prostate cancer combined have fallen by almost a third (30 per cent) in the last 20 years according to the latest Cancer Research UK figures. The figures during this period highlight how research has had a powerful impact in beating cancer.

Death rates for breast cancer have fallen by 38 per cent, bowel cancer by 34 per cent, lung cancer by 27 per cent and prostate cancer by 21 per cent.

Breast cancer scientists have been responsible for improving detection of the disease through screening, developing more specialist care and more effective treatments – such as improved surgery, radiotherapy and drugs like tamoxifen and, more recently, anastrozole and letrozole. Around 15,000 died of the disease 20 years ago compared with 11,600 now.

Research has also meant fewer bowel cancer patients are losing their lives to the disease thanks to improved early detection and the development of better treatments. Today almost 3,000 fewer people a year die from bowel cancer than 20 years ago. The recent introduction of bowel cancer screening is likely to further reduce mortality rates by ensuring more patients are diagnosed earlier.

The lung cancer story is double-edged. Research first revealed the deadly link between smoking and lung cancer 60 years ago. This led to falling smoking rates and an overall decline in mortality rates from the disease. There are now more than 3,000 fewer lung cancer deaths than 20 years ago. But as smoking rates began to fall later in women than in men, death rates have actually risen in women.

There has also been little improvement in the outlook for those that are diagnosed with the disease so Cancer Research UK has made it a priority to stem lung cancer mortality through earlier diagnosis and trials for improved treatments.

Improvements in treatment – including surgery, hormone therapy, and radiotherapy – as well as earlier diagnosis, are thought to have contributed to the trend of reduced prostate cancer death rates.

The drop in death rates is not the only good news. Cancer survival in the UK has doubled in the last 40 years. Today, half those diagnosed with cancer survive the disease for at least 10 years. Cancer Research UK’s ambition is to accelerate progress so that three quarters will survive cancer within the next 20 years.

But not all cancer death rates have dropped. Mortality rates in liver, pancreatic, melanoma, oral and some digestive cancers have all increased.

Full press release published on