The total annual cost of all cancers to the UK economy is now £15.8 billion a year, and lung cancer accounts for £2.4 billion of this total – far more than any other form of the disease, says new research.

£7.6 billion, or half, of the total economic cost of cancer to the UK is due to premature deaths and time off work, according to the research, which has been presented at the National Cancer Research institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool.

Healthcare costs account for a further 35%, or £5.6 billion, and unpaid care to cancer patients by friends and family for 16%, or £2.6 billion. Healthcare spending represents a cost of £90 per person in the UK, says the study.

The average healthcare spend on each cancer patient in the UK is £2,776, and each lung cancer patient costs the system £9,071 a year, compared to £2,756 for bowel cancer, £1,584 for prostate cancer and £1,076 for breast cancer survivors. The total economic costs of other cancers to the UK are £1.6 billion for bowel cancer, £1.5 billion for breast cancer and £0.6 billion for prostate cancer, says the research, which was led by Dr Jose Leal of the Health Economics Research Centre at the University of Oxford.

"Lung cancer costs more than any other cancer, mainly because of potential wage losses due to premature deaths from people in employment - about 60% of the total economic costs - and high health care costs," said Dr Leal.

"The death rate from the disease remains high at 56 deaths per 100,000 people in the UK population annually, and almost a quarter of these occur before retirement," he added.

The research shows that cancers impact the economy as a whole, and not just the health service, Dr Leal went on.

"Premature deaths, time off work and unpaid care by friends and family account for 64% of all cancer costs in the UK in 2009. These wider costs should be taken into account when deciding research priorities - cancers with the highest economic cost could offer the highest expected returns from investment in research," he suggested.

Dr Siobhan McClelland, head of evidence at Macmillan Cancer Support, said that Dr Leal’s research is "vital in helping us understand the true cost of cancer to the NHS and British society."

"Without a better understanding of the costs of cancer, there is a very grave danger than the NHS will not be able to adapt to and cope with the changing face and cost of cancer service provision," she warned.

Dr Leal's research also shows that, throughout the European Union (EU), cancer was the second main cause of death, after cardiovascular disease, in 2009.

Cancer is estimated to cost the EU 124 billion euros each year, or 247 euros per EU citizen, with healthcare accounting for 39% of costs (97 euros per citizen) and 4% of total healthcare spending in the EU. Across the region, lung cancer represented 15% of overall cancer costs, followed by breast cancer (12%), colorectal cancer (10%) and prostate cancer (6%).

"A better understanding of the economic burden of cancers is essential to help evaluate the impact of public health policies and prioritise the allocation of future research funds," Dr Leal writes.