After three decades of progress, the number of women dying from breast cancer each year in the UK is set to rise within four years, new analysis shows.

The projections, released today by leading research charity Breast Cancer Now, estimate that while breast cancer survival rates are improving, if current trends continue the growing incidence of the disease will see the annual number of UK deaths begin increasing once more in 2022.

Following the Prime Minister’s landmark commitment to up to £20.5bn additional funding per year for the NHS in June, Breast Cancer Now has today urged the Government to avert the rise in deaths by taking a “once in a generation” opportunity to save thousands more lives through the NHS Long Term Plan, by:

  • addressing the stark geographic variation in NHS breast cancer services across England
  • investing in local initiatives to improve screening uptake amid decade-low attendance
  • funding interventions to prevent thousands of ‘avoidable’ breast cancers by 2027, including by supporting more women to make sustainable healthy lifestyle changes

Breast cancer is the UK’s most common cancer, with around 55,000 women and 350 men being diagnosed with the disease each year. While more women are surviving the disease than ever before, nearly 11,500 still lose their lives each year in the UK – with survival rates continuing to lag behind other European countries such as Sweden, Portugal, Malta, Germany and France. 

Almost all deaths from the disease are attributable to the development of metastatic (or ‘secondary’) breast cancer – where the tumour cells spread to other parts of the body – which remains incurable.

Thanks to advances in research and significant NHS investment, the number of women dying from their breast cancer each year in the UK has decreased steadily from 15,625 in 1989 to under 11,500 two decades later.

But this progress has begun to plateau in recent years, and amid increasing incidence of the disease – due to the UK’s ageing population and the rise in obesity levels, among other factors – the latest projections show that the total number of women losing their lives to breast cancer each year is expected to be on the increase again by 2022.

The call for greater investment comes as a new analysis by Breast Cancer Now – in collaboration with the York Health Economic Consortium – also estimates that the ‘postcode lottery’ in NHS breast cancer services could be costing over a thousand lives each year.

The figures show that if the breast cancer mortality rates of all CCGs across England were brought in line with the best-performing regions (top 25%), over 1,100 additional deaths from the disease could be prevented each year.

In response, Breast Cancer Now has today urged the Government to address the widespread inequality, calling for a dedicated fund for Cancer Alliances – to enable them to develop tailored interventions to improve the early diagnosis, treatment and care of breast cancer in their local CCGs.

With screening uptake at its lowest rate in a decade (71.1% in 2016/17), new estimates from Breast Cancer Now also suggest that improving attendance to meet the stated 80% uptake target for all screening units could see an additional 230,323 women screened each year, and help prevent around 1,260 deaths from breast cancer per annual cohort of eligible women.

Finally, with recent evidence estimating that around 23% of all breast cancer cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes, new projections from Breast Cancer Now estimate that, without renewed investment in public health interventions, over 89,000 women could develop ‘avoidable’ breast cancers by 2027.

In its new briefing, 55,000 reasons: Why the NHS Long Term Plan must invest in breast cancer, the charity has today urged the Government to renew its focus on promoting sustainable healthy lifestyles and invest in tailored local initiatives to improve screening uptake, among ten key recommendations to help stop more women dying from the disease.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said:

This projected rise in breast cancer deaths is deeply worrying, but it is not too late to stop it. We now have a once in a generation opportunity to invest to stop thousands more women dying from breast cancer and we urge the Government to act now.

It’s so encouraging that, thanks to decades of research progress and NHS investment, more women are surviving breast cancer than ever before. But this progress is not sustainable without more investment to tackle the projected increase in the number of women losing their lives.

With over eleven thousand families still being torn apart by metastatic breast cancer each year in the UK, we need to do much, much more.

We know progress is achievable by tackling the unacceptable geographic variation in NHS diagnosis and care, improving screening attendance and supporting more women to make sustainable lifestyle changes. With incidence continuing to rise, and survival progress now stalling, we simply cannot afford to let such clear chances to prevent thousands of deaths pass us by.

Preventing the spread of breast cancer, and finding ways to treat it effectively when it does, remains our greatest research challenge to improving survival – but we need the Government to take every available opportunity to save lives. Our aim is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live – but if we are to achieve this, we all need to act now.