But there is good news. On some fronts we are winning the war against cancer. We know more about prevention than our parents did. There are better treatments available. And genetic discoveries offer new hope that a cure will be found.
In the 1920s, no one knew that smoking caused cancer, that it was important to keep out of the sun or that what you ate could make a difference.
If children got cancer, they nearly always died. For women with breast or cervical cancer, the long-term chances of survival were slim. There was little help for men with prostate or testicular cancer. In fact, surgery was the only treatment that offered any prospect of a cure. And even with surgery, cure rates were very low. In the 75 years since the Cancer Research Campaign was founded - by a group of clinicians impatient at the slow pace at which lab- oratory research benefited patients - there have been many changes.
Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the charity explains: "Surgery got better, anaesthetics improved, surgeons learned more about fundamental aetiology, the way cancer could spread. Radiotherapy was in the kindergarten in the 1920s but now we can use it not only to fight disease, but to add to the quality of life.
"Then there were drugs. In the 1940s it was recognised that if cancer was spread via the bloodstream we needed a substance to combat it which did the same. Stilboestrol was developed first for breast cancer, then found to be better for prostate cancer. That was the start."
So things are different now. Today, more than 60 per cent of children with cancer survive. For childhood leukaemia the figure is higher. Caught early, cervical cancer is no longer a killer. New drugs and treatments for breast cancer are improving survival rates and quality of life. Nine out of ten cases of testicular cancer can be cured.
But the war continues. We need to know more about the enemy, why genes are altered in cancer cells and how gene therapy could reverse the process. We need to know more about how cancer drugs work, how best to use them in conjunction with surgery and radiotherapy. We need to know more about what causes cancers, why some people develop them and others do not.
Hopefully, research will provide the answers. And one day - maybe even in our children's lifetime - cancer will become history.Reuse content