Research is the key cause behind the 22% drop in UK death rates from cancer reported between 1990 and 2011, says new research.

In 1990, 220 in every 100,000 people died of cancer ,but this figure fell to 170 per 100,000 in 2011, due to improved knowledge about preventing the disease, surgical techniques, precisely-targeted radiotherapy and more effective drugs all boosting the outcome for patients, says the study, from Cancer Research UK CRUK). 

During 1990-2011, the cancer mortality rate for women fell 20%, from 185 to 147 per 100,000, while for men the drop was 26%, from 277 down t 203 per 100,000.

These dramatic falls are despite the fact that more people in the UK are being diagnosed with cancer, largely as a result of the ageing population and cancer being more common in older people.

The importance of research into the causes of cancer is demonstrated by the big falls in the number of people diagnosed with lung cancer as a result of fewer men smoking. Death rates for lung cancer in men have dropped 41% in the last 20 years, but more research is still needed into developing more effective lung cancer treatments. “This will give people who are diagnosed with the disease a much better chance of being cured, as survival remains among the lowest of any cancer,” says the charity, which has published these latest figures alongside a new campaign to raise awareness of the importance of research in beating cancer and reducing its impact.

Commenting on the new figures, Professor Peter Johnson, chief clinician at CRUK, said: “clearly we’re moving in the right direction. I’ve personally seen, in my clinics, incredible advances in cures for cancers like leukemia and improvements in treatment options for prostate cancer. But not clinician, no researcher and no patient will be happy until we’ve driven down the death rate even further through research.”

“Today, cancer is not the death sentence people once believed it to be,” added Harpal Kumar, chief executive at the charity.

“As these new figures show, mortality rates from this much-feared disease are dropping significantly as the fruits of research are producing more effective treatments with fewer side effects. But while we’re heading in the right direction, too many lives are still being lost to the disease, highlighting how much more work there is to do,” said Mr Kumar.