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Research is continuing to change what it means to have cancer

24th September marks World Cancer Research Day. In this blog, Dr Kathryn Scott, Chief Executive at Yorkshire Cancer Research, highlights the difference that cancer research has made, and how research is continuing to shape our experience of cancer.

Research has played a big part in all our lives recently. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve witnessed in real-time the progress of science: understanding what we don’t know, trial and error, progress and setbacks, and finally the development of life-saving treatments and effective vaccines. It’s been astonishing to follow research from the beginning and see its tangible benefits in less than two years. It’s such a unique experience that it’s easy to forget that similar progress is happening all the time (albeit over longer timescales) for many diseases, including cancer.

The chances are, cancer has touched your life – either yourself directly, or your friends or family. Every aspect of a person’s experience of cancer has been shaped in some way by research. The symptoms that person is told to look out for, or the screening programme they may have been invited to attend. The tests they are referred for by their GP, and the diagnosis these tests may lead to. The treatment that person receives, and the care and support given to them throughout, and the years following.

What impact has research had on cancer survival?

Research has shaped what it means to have cancer. And research has made improvements at every stage – prevention, diagnosis and treatment, – to help make sure more people survive and experience a good quality of life.

Overall, cancer survival has doubled over the last 40 years. In the early 1970s, just 1 in 4 people diagnosed with cancer in England survived 10 years or more. Predictions suggest that for those diagnosed in 2010-11, that’s now 2 in 4 people.

Survival from cancer is also improving in Yorkshire, in line with the wider picture across England. Of the people in Yorkshire diagnosed with cancer in 2003, 41% survived 10 years or more, but by 2009 that had risen to 45% – a 10% relative increase in just a few years.

How exactly has this been achieved? Through small but important steps over time, all made possible by research.

Research is continuing to shape what it means to have cancer

Thanks to research, we understand more about the causes of cancer, and how best to prevent the disease, and now we’re implementing this knowledge. Research funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research – supported by people like you – is helping people to reduce their risk of cancer by quitting smoking, through the Yorkshire Stop Smoking Study and our QUIT Programme in South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw.

Thanks to research, we’re detecting and diagnosing cancers earlier. Using technology like CT, MRI, and PET scans, we’re now able to pick up tumours at a stage when treatment is more likely to be successful. We also have effective screening programmes for some of the most common cancers, which are finding breast, bowel, and cervical cancers early or before they have even developed. And thanks to your support, we’re piloting a new screening programme for lung cancer with our Leeds Lung Health Check.

Thanks to research, treatments for cancer are more effective than ever before. Surgery and radiotherapy are both more targeted and less damaging in terms of side effects. We have a wider range of chemotherapy drugs, which can be used in combinations to attack cancer cells from multiple angles.

We also have more targeted medicines that are specific to particular types of cancer (and their subtypes), which should mean more effective control of cancer with fewer side effects. Tamoxifen and Lynparza are two widely-used targeted treatments that were developed with the help of Yorkshire Cancer Research, funded by supporters like you.

Research is changing people's lives right now

And while some of this work has spanned many decades, not all research takes that long to benefit patients right here in Yorkshire. Thanks to your donations, we’re able to support projects that are changing people’s lives today – such as Leeds Lung Health Check and our Active Together programme at the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre in Sheffield. And evidence generated from research not only helps to create new treatments, but it also informs our policy work and the services we provide.

There’s also evidence to suggest that cancer patients treated at hospitals that participate in a lot of clinical research have fewer complications and better survival than patients treated elsewhere.

There's still more work to be done

However, while there have been many successes and breakthroughs, the work is not over. More and more people are developing cancer every year, and people are still dying prematurely every day. Survival rates for cancer vary dramatically by cancer type, and certain types of cancer have seen little to no progress in diagnosis or treatment. And the incidence and mortality rates for cancer vary significantly across the world, within the UK, and even within Yorkshire.

But as difficult as these challenges might seem, they are solvable. The progress we’ve made in cancer over the last 40 years – and in the last two years with COVID-19 – is proof of the power of research.

Collaboration is key

World Cancer Research Day on 24th September is a focal point for all of us to renew our commitment to cancer research. Central to this is collaboration. The successes we’ve seen in cancer research are rarely down to one individual. Instead, they are the result of people working in teams across borders – whether they’re borders between countries or counties. We’re proud to support researchers in Yorkshire working with experts across the UK and throughout the world, to improve cancer survival in our region.

On World Cancer Research Day, we’ll be reminding ourselves of the impact that research has made to our lives. We’ll remember the difference that you and all our supporters have made. And we’ll continue our commitment to supporting pioneering research to stop people in our region dying from cancer. Will you join us?

Renew your commitment to cancer research and the people in our region with a donation to Yorkshire Cancer Research – find out all the ways you can support us here.