Male nurse and woman

Decades behind and failing patients, UK cancer care is ‘stuck in the noughties’

Published: 19 June 2024
Today we published new analysis revealing that cancer survival rates in the UK are as much as 25 years behind other European countries. The UK’s survival rates for several common types of cancer are only just now reaching what countries such as Sweden and Norway had already achieved in the early 2000s, or even earlier in some cases. This election, we need to see the next UK government committing to revolutionising cancer care.  
A photo a person sitting in a chair by a desk. They are facing away from the desk and looking at the camera and smiling.

Ishani Sarkar Senior Campaigns Adviser at Macmillan Cancer Support

Cancer care is in crisis, and the UK is lagging behind

Cancer survival rates in the UK are as much as 25 years behind other European countries. Our analysis suggests if the UK’s survival rates matched the best in Europe, thousands more people who are diagnosed each year would survive their cancer for at least five years.

On top of this, waiting times across the UK were among the worst on record in 2023, leaving patients struggling physically, emotionally, and financially. Factors such as ethnicity and location can significantly impact diagnosis and treatment times, creating unacceptable inequalities in a person’s care. People with cancer are facing serious financial issues, and the cost of living crisis is now having a higher impact on a person’s physical health than it has done since June 2022.

As we released this new analysis, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was directly confronted about our findings live on LBC News, and asked about addressing the urgent need for change. You can watch his response below. Our response is clear, it’s not just survival rates that need addressing, but the whole system.

We’ve reached breaking point

More than 390,000 people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK – at least one person every 90 seconds. Today, more than 3 million people are already living with the disease, and 1 in 2 of us will face it in our lifetimes. With an ageing population with more complex needs, the number of people with cancer will only continue to rise. Healthcare professionals are doing their best, but the system is overwhelmed, understaffed, and underfunded, and it can’t keep up with growing demand.

Waiting for medical attention feels tougher than it has ever been. Too many people are facing widespread delays to treatment and are faced with the burden of navigating a maze of different departments and unfamiliar faces, with no one to connect the dots. People feel like a number, not a person.

Real people’s lives are in the balance.

Real people, like Sbba, are being left behind

Macmillan campaigner, Sbba (55, Slough), was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in March 2022 after waiting 6 months for a diagnosis. She continues to experience challenges and delays in her care.

We hear experiences like Sbba’s far too often, where long delays in appointments and care take a huge physical and emotional toll, for both the individual and their loved ones.

Sbba's story

I was going back and forth to the doctors for six months before my life turned upside down when I was diagnosed. As my treatment plan started, I had to really build myself up to face major abdominal surgery which got delayed due to another ‘more urgent’ case; I felt like the rug had been pulled from underneath me as I waited and waited.

Now I’m in remission I’m still stuck waiting desperately in the system. I am endlessly chasing appointments I urgently need because of the side effects of chemotherapy. The side effects have been truly horrendous, and I have had to accept that without these referrals, my physical and mental mobility will continue to be stripped away from me. If I have any hope of having a good quality of life, of regaining my strength and independence, it’s been made clear to me that I must do that on my own.

This is taking a huge toll on my mental health; I feel broken physically and mentally. I feel like I've been left, on my own, to fall off a cliff.

This election, we need to see radical change. We don’t need short-term solutions being stuck over the NHS like plasters that will crumble and fall off. We need long term funding being delivered right into the heart of cancer care. I want to see cancer patients being treated holistically, with each of their needs addressed. Cancer doesn’t just take a physical form, it weaves into you emotionally, financially and into your relationships.

It’s also vital we see visibility and representation in cancer care. No one individual experiences cancer the same, and I want to see a commitment to tackling health inequalities. As a South Asian woman, I experienced substandard care at every turn and now I want to see real solutions dedicated to improving the experiences of ethnic minorities.

A south Asian lady with brown hair with a sign supporting people with cancer .
Image: Photo of Sbba

But there’s hope, it doesn’t have to be this way

The next UK Government can start to turn things around. Better is entirely possible. We think that must start by prioritising a long-term, cross-government strategy that reimagines cancer care. This means addressing not only healthcare, but bringing together finances, work, housing, and more, ensuring care revolves around all of an individual’s needs. Treating cancer patients as people could save lives.

Cancer affects every part of a person’s life, and their care must reflect this. We must work towards eliminating inequalities in care so that everyone gets the best treatment and support, regardless of who they are or where they live. Almost everyone will be impacted by cancer at some point in their life, either with themselves or a loved one.

We have always strived to do better for people living with cancer. That’s been our driving force since Macmillan began more than a century ago.

We want everyone living with cancer in the UK to receive the best care in the world. Putting the needs of people with cancer at the heart of everything we do, we’re on a mission to eliminate the gaps in cancer care so wherever you are and whoever you are, you get the very best.

Take action with us today

Cancer care has led the way in changing the healthcare system for the better before. It's time to do it again. Together, with politicians and partners, we can transform cancer care for a more hopeful future. 

We have a 113-year history on ensuring the voices of people affected by cancer help drive improvements and innovation in cancer care. Join us as we demand a revolution in cancer care this general election.  

When asked why she is joining our campaign this election, Sbba said: “While there are so many gaps and cracks in the system, I do feel like there is hope for cancer care in the UK. This election must be the turning point. With 1 in 2 of us being diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime, we’re in this together, and together we can demand a future where cancer care in the UK is second to none.” 

You can take action with us by contacting your local candidates, using our simple online tool, asking for a commitment to transform cancer care if elected. Together, we ensure that everyone with cancer gets the care they need, every step of the way. 


Contact your candidates

References and key facts

  • Previous international comparison studies have consistently shown the UK has among some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europeix, however results published from these studies do not yet include the latest available data, due to the scale of data collection and analysis needed.
  • To better understand the current picture in the run-up to the UK’s General Election, Macmillan has compared the most up-to-date official statistics for cancer survival across the four UK nations with the equivalent data for Sweden, Norway and Denmark. All three countries have relatively similar healthcare systems to the UK and also publish high-quality cancer survival statistics.
  • As well as considerably poorer survival for colon, prostate and cervical cancer, the comparison (see table below) also shows survival rates for breast cancer are lagging up to 10 years behind.
  • The data also shows that other countries have been able to achieve substantial improvements in survival in recent years, with five-year survival rates for men with colon cancer in Denmark increasing from less than 60% for those diagnosed in 2007-2011 to more than 70% in the most recent figures. In comparison, the five-year survival rate for men with colon cancer in England has shown little to no improvement over the same time period and may even be getting worse.

Stories And Media