Living with Cancer: Past and Present

Throughout July we’re celebrating 70 years of the NHS, and this week we’ve been digging into the archives to find out how cancer survival rates have changed over the years…

Have you ever thought about how cancer got its name? It was actually the Greek physician Hippocrates who thought that tumour projections bore a resemblance to crabs, and named the pathology accordingly (‘carcinos/carcinoma’, which would later become the Latin equivalent ‘cancer’). Of course, the ancient Greek treatments for cancer have been long since left behind. But the name, as well the core of some ideas – such as the notion that cancer is linked to poor diet, or is more easily treated if diagnosed early – have stuck with us.

Over the many intervening years, there have been a huge number of scientific breakthroughs that have helped push the frontiers of cancer treatment around the world. Within the lifetime of the NHS, these advances include the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA (1953), the invention of the CT scanner (1971) and the identification of strains of the HPV virus that can cause cervical cancer (1984). Treatments and technologies made possible by the great scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st century are now available under the NHS, including medical imaging, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. The UK didn’t start collecting detailed records about cancer incidence until the 1970s, but the available data indicates that the number of people surviving 10 years has, on average, doubled since 19711.

However, Wales along with other UK nations still lags behind other countries with similar healthcare systems in terms of survival for a number of common cancers, including bowel, lung, breast and ovarian cancer2. A closer look at the survival data also indicates that although overall survival has increased, some cancer types have not benefitted from this improved prognosis. For example, in 1971 the 10 year survival for lung cancer was 3.1% but in 2010, the expected 10 year survival rate was still only at 5%1. Several of the research projects funded by Cancer Research Wales are currently attempting to address these imbalances. It is our hope that, looking forward, the latest scientific findings and technologies can be readily embedded into the NHS for maximum patient benefit.


  1. Quaresma M, Coleman MP, Rachet B. 40 year trends in an index of survival for all cancers combined and survival adjusted for age and sex for each cancer in England and Wales, 1971- 2011: a population-based study. The Lancet. 2015; 385: 1206-1218. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)61396-9.
  2. Coleman MP et al. Cancer survival in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the UK, 1995-2007 (the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership): an analysis of population-based cancer registry data. The Lancet. 2011; 377(9760): 127-138. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)62231-3.