According to Macmillan Cancer Support, by 2020, nearly half of the people in the UK will get cancer in their lifetime, a statistic that poses what the UK charity describes as a “herculean” challenge for the National Health Service (NHS).

From an analysis of current data, the charity projects that in 2020 nearly one in two people (47%) will get cancer in his or her lifetime, but almost one in four (38%) will not die of the disease.

This is likely to put huge pressure on the NHS and increase demand on cancer support charities, say Macmillan in the report published on its website this week.

The charity says the reason more people are getting cancer is because we are living longer: as the population ages, the bigger the proportion that gets cancer.

And the reduction in the numbers dying of cancer is because more cases are diagnosed earlier, treatments are improving, and so is cancer care.

Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, says in a statement:

“Because of the progress in healthcare – ironically largely for conditions other than cancer – in only seven years time nearly half the population will get cancer in their lifetime. This poses a herculean challenge for the NHS and for society”.

However, while more people are surviving cancer, many continue to struggle with health problems and side effects.

The charity’s Chief Medical Officer, professor Jane Maher says in a statement:

“That we live longer as a nation, and that we are improving cancer treatment, are things to celebrate. We do, however, need to add a serious note of caution: the more successful we are with treatment and cure, the more people we have living with the long- term effects of cancer and its treatment.”

She goes on to explain how many people can continue to suffer poor health both physically and mentally long after the end of their cancer treatment:

“People struggle with fatigue, pain, immobility, or an array of other troublesome side-effects. We need to manage these consequences for the sake of the patient, but also for the sake of the taxpayer. We should plan to have more services to help people stay well at home, rather than waiting until they need hospital treatment,” says Maher.

In their analysis, Macmillan found that the proportion of people in the UK who will get cancer during their lifetime has gone up by over a third in the last 20 years.

Of the people who died in 1992, around a third (32%) had been diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. This figure rose to more than four in ten (44%) by 2010.

And they expect this figure to rise to 47% by 2020.

20 years ago, 21% of people who died having had a cancer diagnosis died from other causes. Today this figure is 35% and will improve further to 38% by 2020, according to Macmillan’s new analysis.

This means today there are twice as many people who get cancer but don’t die from it compared with 20 years ago. In 1992, roughly 45,000 cancer patients did not die from the disease compared with around 90,000 in 2010.

The most common non-cancer causes of death are ischaemic heart disease (accounting for around 20% of deaths), respiratory disease (another 20%), and cerebrovascular disease such as stroke (12%).

Devane says:

“The NHS will not be able to cope with the huge increase in demand for cancer services without a fundamental shift towards proper after-care, without more care delivered in the community, and without engaging cancer patients in their own health.”

He says that until then, there will be an even more urgent and important need for organizations like Macmillan “to ensure no one faces cancer alone”.

In February, an estimate published in the Annals of Oncology shows that while numbers have gone up, the proportion of Europeans dying of cancer is falling.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD