Late diagnosis has created deadly cancer gap

  • A quarter of cancers in the UK have an average five-year survival rate of just 16%. They are known as the less survivable cancers.
  • NHS data shows less survivable cancers are far more likely to be diagnosed in emergency settings yet early diagnosis is crucial for survival. 
  • Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce launches awareness day to urge people with symptoms to seek medical help.

The Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce (LSCT) has launched the first Less Survivable Cancers Awareness Day to highlight the critical importance of early diagnosis in improving survival and quality of life for people diagnosed with these cancers. 

The LSCT represents six less survivable cancers, lung, liver, brain, oesophageal, pancreatic and stomach, with an average five-year survival rate of just 16%. Together, these less survivable cancers make up nearly half of all common cancer deaths in the UK.

Less survivable cancers are difficult to diagnose. Screening programmes are limited or non-existent and most of the general public are unaware of common symptoms. Data released by the LSCT in 2021 showed that awareness of the symptoms of the deadliest cancers is as low as 4% in the UK

Many patients with a less survivable cancer will only be diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital or an emergency GP referral after symptoms have become severe. For other common cancers, the proportion diagnosed at such a late stage is far lower and the average five-year survival rate is markedly higher at 69%.

Data released by the NHS last year showed that the proportion of less survivable cancers diagnosed in England in emergency settings like A&E departments and resulting in first hospital admissions was far higher than for more survivable cancers. While 2.7% of breast and 7.8% of prostate cancer cases were diagnosed as an emergency, the figures were 53% for pancreatic, 52.7% for Central Nervous System (including brain), 44.9% for liver, 35.3% for lung, 30.2% for stomach and 20.5% for oesophageal cancers.

These late diagnoses account, in part, for the catastrophic prognoses for thousands of people each year as patients with cancers that are diagnosed in an emergency suffer significantly worse outcomes.

As well as a focus on symptom awareness, the LSCT is calling for all UK governments to commit to increasing survival rates for less survivable cancers to 28% by 2029 by eliminating avoidable delays in diagnosis and proactively investing in research and treatment options.

Anna Jewell, Chair of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce said:

“We know that delays in diagnosis lead to much poorer outcomes for patients with these rapidly-advancing cancers. We also know the trauma associated with receiving a diagnosis in an emergency setting for both patients and families. 

“These cancers are currently difficult or impossible to treat at later stages and the time from diagnosis to death is often brutally short compared to more survivable cancers. The situation is critical and has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Taskforce is calling for a significant increase in research funding as well as a commitment to increasing resources for early diagnosis for less survivable cancers so we can close the deadly cancer gap.”

Andrew Millar, Consultant Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist at the North Middlesex University Hospital, said: 

“Late presentation is a key reason that some cancers are hard to treat. Advanced disease means there are fewer options for treatment and often results in rapid deterioration leaving families and friends bewildered and shocked. Early diagnosis is crucial if we are going to tackle this problem and fight the stark inequalities in the survival rates of different cancers. 

“Some cancers, such as brain tumours, are so hard to diagnose early that an emergency diagnosis is often inevitable, but for many others presentation after an emergency admission could have been avoided with greater symptom awareness and better access to diagnostic services.

“Substantial investment in diagnostic equipment and staff is urgently needed, together with better support for research into new diagnostic methods and GPs need better access to diagnostic tests. We need national screening programmes for those identified as being at higher risk of cancer, particularly for the less common, less survivable cancers.”

Hayley Plimmer from Gillingham in Kent lost her 64-year-old mother Catherine ‘aka Kay’ Christopher to liver cancer in 2017 following a late diagnosis. Hayley said:

“My mother died of liver cancer five days after receiving her diagnosis and being told by her consultant that there was nothing that could be done. It was a horribly shocking and traumatic experience for the whole family and we’re still reeling four years later. Looking back, there were some signs which we now know to have been symptoms of cancer but we had no idea at the time. I want to support the Less Survivable Cancers awareness day so other families don’t have to go through what we have.”

The Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce is urging everyone to be aware of the symptoms of these deadly cancers and to seek medical help at the earliest opportunity if they recognise any of the signs.

Typical symptoms will vary but red flags for less survivable cancers could include any of the following; indigestion, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, a loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing, a persistent cough, unexplained tiredness, headaches or nausea. The key message is to seek medical help swiftly if you notice anything unusual for you.

To find out more visit: