More than 500,000 people in UK ‘will be diagnosed with cancer each year by 2040’

<span>Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA</span>
Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

More than 500,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer every year by 2040, according to analysis by Cancer Research UK.

In its report published on Friday, researchers project that if current trends continue, cancer cases will rise by one-third from 384,000 a year diagnosed now to 506,000 in 2040, taking the number of new cases every year to more than half a million for the first time.

While mortality rates are projected to fall for many cancer types, the absolute numbers of deaths are predicted to increase by almost a quarter to 208,000. In total, it estimates that between 2023 and 2040, there could be 8.4m new cases and 3.5 million people could have died from cancer.

Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, Charles Swanton, said: “By the end of the next decade, if left unaided, the NHS risks being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new cancer diagnoses. It takes 15 years to train an oncologist, pathologist, radiologist or surgeon. The government must start planning now to give patients the support they will so desperately need.”


The report comes as the NHS announced a new campaign to boost awareness of potential signs of cancer. From Monday, an NHS doubledecker bus will visit five cities in an effort to encourage people to go to their GP if they have any symptoms.

As part of the health service’s Help Us, Help You campaign, teams of NHS staff and nurses from Cancer Research UK will provide expert advice to passersby in Blackburn, Sunderland, Barnsley, Leicester and London, where early diagnosis rates for cancer are among the lowest.

Latest government figures show that in November, although there was a record number of almost 265,000 people seen by a cancer consultant, only 78.8% of them were seen within two weeks of being urgently referred by their GPs for suspected cancer, well below the 93% target. And while record numbers started treatment, almost two in five (39%) of the patients urgently referred by their GPs for suspected cancer waited more than two months to begin treatment.

The NHS national clinical director for cancer, Peter Johnson, said: “Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, our campaigning efforts and early diagnosis drives, the NHS has been seeing and treating more people for cancer than ever before, and diagnosing them at an earlier stage, making them easier to treat successfully.

“Although cancer is becoming more common as people live longer, there is a lot that we can do to reduce the risk, by adopting healthier lifestyles, reducing alcohol intake and quitting smoking.”

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “Worryingly, cancer care is worsening as cancer cases are rising. More cancer patients have waited longer than they should for care every year since the Conservatives came to power.

“Without the doctors and nurses to diagnose cancer early and treat it effectively, more people will lose their lives to this disease.”

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, called on the government to take immediate action. She said: “A 10-year cancer plan that will prepare cancer services for the future, give people affected by cancer the care they deserve and the resources – people and equipment – the NHS needs, is essential.”

Dr Tom Roques, a clinical oncologist and vice-president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: We are facing extreme pressure in cancer services right now. With cancer cases rising, more complex patients and more innovative treatments coming, I worry about how we will cope in the future. Even now we have a 17% shortfall of clinical oncologists, which is limiting our ability to give high-quality, safe care.

“Investing in the cancer workforce today is critical for the cancer patients of tomorrow.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are laser focused on fighting cancer on all fronts – prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research and funding – so we can deliver the best possible outcomes for patients.

“More patients are being diagnosed and starting treatment earlier, with 92 community diagnostic centres open since 2021 delivering over 2.8m tests, scans and checks including to detect cancer. We also recently announced a £10m investment in more breast cancer screening units as well as software and service upgrades.

“We have partnered up with among the best and brightest minds who created the Covid Pfizer vaccine to try to develop new cancer vaccines and put record amounts in exciting trials to look at ways of better treating cancer.”

Additional reporting by Carmen Aguilar García