Gregor McNie: Battles won but cancer war continues

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“This is it – the moment we can say that as many people now survive cancer as die from cancer, so what do we do now?” They’re the bold words in our new television advert.

One in three of us will get cancer in our lifetimes and through friends, family and loved ones it is a disease which touches almost every single one of us. Every hour, three people in Scotland are
diagnosed with cancer.

But the good news is we’re detecting cancers far earlier and more effective treatments are helping more Scots to survive. The number of people dying of the most common cancers has fallen by almost a third in the past 20 years. Death rates for breast cancer have fallen by 33 per cent, bowel cancer by 30 per cent, lung cancer by 23 per cent and prostate cancer by 11 per cent.

Our pioneering research at the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre next to the Western General Hospital is helping to lead the charge against cancer. It’s only through research that we understand how to detect these cancers earlier whether by understanding what screening works best, discovering early symptoms or how to prevent the disease in the first place. Cancer Research UK spends around £34 million a year in Scotland on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research.

We fund world-class researchers including a team in Edinburgh which is leading research into the genetic and environmental causes of bowel cancer. This important work is bringing us a step closer to a test that can spot people at high risk so they can be offered tailored advice, screening and treatment and improve survival for people with this type of cancer. Cutting-edge research is developing treatments to stop cancer spreading.

But there is still a way to go. About 40 per cent of cancers are preventable by changes in lifestyle. These are things that we do in our day-to-day lives. Smoking, drinking too much alcohol, a poor diet, not enough exercise or too much UV exposure through sun and sun beds can all damage our health. One in four cancer deaths is linked to tobacco and one in two tobacco users will die from it, which is a frightening prospect. We understand far more about how changing lifestyle behaviours can make us healthier and live longer. Regrettably, there is a growing prevalence of lung cancer among women in Scotland. That is due to more women taking up smoking in the 1980s. Now we’re working with the Scottish Government and other charities to encourage Scots to quit smoking and to deter children today from starting.

And we’re doubling and sometimes tripling investment in research into treatments for cancers where the outcome for patients is still less positive like brain, oesophagus, lung and pancreatic cancer. Prognosis and treatment have not been good enough to date.

Our ambition is a big one. At Cancer Research UK we’ve been reflecting back to the 1970s, just over a generation ago when only one in four people would survive cancer.

Today two in four people survive cancer but in the next 20 years we want to see three in four people surviving the disease. That will require an enormous amount of research, refocusing on early detection and how to prevent cancers in the first place. But we’re confident that we’ll get there. We will do whatever it takes. We will work even harder.

All our research is funded through public donations and 90 per cent of those are less than £10. It means we all have a vital role to play and together we will beat cancer sooner.”

• Gregor McNie, policy and public affairs manager for Scotland for Cancer Research UK