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Cancer research offers more hope than people think

The strong public focus on a ‘cure for cancer’ is masking dramatic progress in extending the lives of patients with advanced cancer and turning it into a manageable disease long term, a YouGov poll of members of the public and cancer patients has found.

Just 28 per cent of people consider cancer a disease which can be controlled long term, compared with 46 per cent for heart disease and 77 per cent for diabetes – even though the average person with cancer now lives more than 10 years.

Just a quarter of people believe long-term survival rates from cancer are increasing ‘a lot’, and just 39 per cent feel that cancer could be ‘cured’ – meaning all symptoms removed without risk of relapse – in the next 50 years.

The Institute of Cancer Research, London, believes that focusing exclusively on curing cancer risks overlooking the huge progress that has been made in allowing people with advanced disease to live much longer with a high quality of life. The reality for many people with advanced cancer is that cures are not yet possible but we are doing much better at offering new personalised treatments that can greatly extend lives.

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) argues that while curing cancer will always be the ultimate goal for patients and researchers, new ‘Darwinian’ approaches to treatment now offer the hope of controlling even advanced disease in the long term.

The ICR commissioned polls of 2,103 members of the public and 355 people who have been treated for cancer to inform the development of its new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery by assessing public understanding of the major challenge of cancer evolution and drug resistance.

The ICR – a charity and research institute – is launching the world’s first ‘Darwinian’ drug discovery programme within the new centre aimed at achieving further dramatic improvements in the proportion of patients whose disease can be controlled long term and effectively cured.

Statistics show that the average length of survival from cancer has approximately doubled over a decade as new targeted drugs, combination treatments and immunotherapies begin to greatly improve long-term control, with a good quality of life, in patients with advanced disease.

Cancer’s ability to constantly adapt, evolve and develop drug resistance is the cause of the vast majority of cancer deaths yet the polling found that only half of people identified cancer evolution and drug resistance as one of the biggest challenges in cancer research and treatment.

Worryingly, the widely used term ‘all clear’ is commonly misunderstood by both the public and patients, with a third of both groups believing it means the disease is completely cured, rather than simply undetectable and with the potential to still return.

Only 60 per cent of people in the YouGov poll understood that the term ‘drug resistance’ in cancer means the cancer treatment has stopped working – with many assuming the term related to antibiotic treatment. Some 15 per cent of the public, and 16 per cent of cancer patients, were not aware that cancer can resist treatment and come back – a tragic reality for many people with cancer.

Scientists at the ICR argue that an overly binary, ‘cure or nothing’ approach to cancer could be unhelpful, not only in overshadowing the progress made so far, but to our understanding of how best to tackle the disease in future.

The ICR shares the goal of patients in wanting cancer to be completely cured but also believes that it is vital to take people on a journey so that they understand and accept new evolutionary approaches to treatment that can control even advanced cancers in the long term.