Survival from cancer has doubled during the past 30 years but the gains have not been evenly spread and some cancers remain as deadly as ever, researchers said yesterday.
A drive to boost research into three of the nastiest cancers – lung, pancreas and oesophagus, which together cause 50,000 deaths a year – announced yesterday will seek to raise their survival rates closer to the best.
Launching the five-year strategy, backed by an annual £300m for research, Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said the charity aimed to save the maximum number of lives.
"Huge progress has been made in beating cancer over the past 30 years. But progress has been faster in some areas than in others. Our strategy is about doing those things we think will make the biggest difference over the next 15-20 years."
While more than 70 per cent of women survive at least 10 years with breast cancer – and testicular, melanoma and Hodgkin's disease have 80 per cent 10-year survival rates, only 5 per cent of those with lung, pancreatic or oesophageal cancer survive that long.
Mr Kumar said: "In these three cancers there has been a degree of defeatism. Researchers have said they are not sure they can improve survival so we won't try. We say there is progress we can make."
The cancers were often diagnosed late because symptoms were often difficult to distinguish from those due to trivial causes and the organs were deep within the body.
Lung cancer is the second commonest cancer (after breast cancer) and has the highest toll at 34,000 deaths a year. Yet the charity spent £13m on research into lung cancer, less than a third of the £45mn spent on breast cancer research.
Oesophageal and pancreatic cancers cause about 7,000 deaths each a year, and though less common, are still among the top 10 cancers in the UK. Oesophageal cancer is one of the fastest-rising cancers and the UK rates are among the highest in the world. The cancer is linked with obesity which causes acid reflux (from the stomach into the lower end of the oesophagus).
Mr Kumar said: "Growing obesity cannot be the whole explanation [for the rise] because our rates are higher than in the US and obesity is a bigger problem there."
In all cancers where treatment is successful, the biggest contribution comes from surgery, Mr Kumar said. Yet drugs for cancer get more attention among the public.
"Public interest in cancer drugs is driven by the drug companies. Surgeons and radiotherapists don't have marketing departments but drug companies do," he said.
New surgical techniques could dramatically improve survival rates but research into surgery had been in decline and one aim of the new strategy was to boost research.
"It is not that surgery has been neglected, it is that we have not been getting enough applications. The career structure for surgeons has made it more difficult to do. We absolutely want to do more."