Speaking at the RCGP annual conference, Cancer Research UK chief executive Mr Kumar said that the cancer care agenda was ‘changing dramatically’ towards a greater emphasis on prevention and early diagnosis.
With this change comes a much expanded role for primary care, he said, and GPs must ‘start action now’ to tackle the problems.
GPs should emphasise that obesity carries a significant risk of cancer to make them take their weight loss more seriously, as many are currently unaware of the link, he said.
One in two UK patients will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life, he warned. There are 330,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed every year, and this number is rising by 2% every year.
Data shows that around 40% of cancer cases are directly caused by preventable lifestyle factors including obesity, smoking and alcohol. The GP role in tackling these is ‘paramount’, he said.
He said: ‘GPs of course have a huge role to play in helping individuals understand the impact of obesity, of smoking, of exercise, and of alcohol on health.
‘And frankly, we know that people are really afraid of cancer, but not many people associate obesity or alcohol with cancer. So use cancer as something that people should be thinking about when they're thinking about the importance of addressing obesity.’
But cancer mortality is going down – more than half of patients diagnosed will survive at least 10 years after initial diagnosis, which is largely testament to GP care, he said. This could improve further, as there are still 160,000 deaths a year.
And these rates are not as good as comparable Europe countries, and cancer care must improve in the UK. ‘We have among the lowest rates of cancers but one of highest mortality rates among rich countries,’ said Mr Kumar. ‘We are catching the disease too late.’
Achieving earlier diagnosis could help save over 11,000 deaths a year. ‘It’s not just about improving outcomes,’ he said. ‘It’s also highly cost-effective. We know that it’s about three to four times more expensive to treat late-stage cancer rather than early-stage cancer. So it’s also about using our resources more efficiently.’