More than two thirds of the public do not think cancer sufferers can live with the disease for years, a survey has found.
The exclusive focus on finding a cure is overshadowing “huge” progress that is already allowing those with advanced cancer to live longer, the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) said.
Over the past decade, survival times from cancer have roughly doubled, with the average patient now living more than 10 years after being diagnosed.
However, only 28% of people believed the disease can be controlled in the long-term, according to an ICR-commissioned YouGov poll of members of the public and cancer patients.
In comparison, 46% believed heart disease – the world’s deadliest disease – can be managed long-term, while 77% said the same for diabetes.
The survey of 2,103 members of the public and 366 patients, also found only a quarter of people (26%) think progress in fighting cancer is being made.
The ICR is calling for more attention to be placed on cancer’s ability to resist treatment, so more people can live longer and survive cancer.
It said a cure is not yet possible for many with advanced cancer, but personalised treatment is greatly extending their lives.
Only half of people questioned cancer evolution and drug resistance as one of the biggest challenges in cancer research and treatment.
And a third of the public and patient groups both wrongly believed being given the “all-clear” means the disease has been cured, when it actually means it is undetectable at present but could return.
Barbara Ritchie Lines, from Birmingham, is a breast cancer survivor who underwent eight years of treatment after being diagnosed in 2005. Her cancer is now undetectable.
She said: “When I first got diagnosed, I was told that I had maybe only 12 months – but it’s been 14 years, and here I am.
“I’m so grateful that I now have all this time to spend with my new grandchildren. Being here to hold my seven-week-old grandson means the absolute world to me.
“It is always at the back of your mind that the cancer might come back.
“I try to keep it there so I can carry on living my life, but I hope we continue to see new drugs and treatments to make sure that, no matter what happens with our cancer, the doctors will be ready and able to overcome the disease.
“Cancer doesn’t have to be the end – it can be the start of a whole new life.”
Dr Olivia Rossanese, head of biology at ICR’s cancer therapeutics centre, said research means doctors know how to treat drug resistance which is why survival times are so much higher than a decade ago.
She told Sky News: “Hearing that you’re cured is what every patient wants to hear, but unfortunately that’s not the clinical reality for lots of patients.
“Switching the conversation to ‘we understand a little bit about how you’re going to respond and we understand that resistance can happen, but we know how to treat that resistance’ – that turns it into this manageable disease.”
The ICR is launching the world’s first “Darwinian” drug discovery programme which is aimed at increasing the proportion of patients whose disease can be controlled long-term.
Professor Paul Workman, ICR chief executive, said: “We believe it’s vital that we can take the public on this journey with us, by understanding that cancer is a hugely complex and evolving disease, and that we need to move beyond the old, binary ‘cure or nothing’ thinking to find innovative new ways of treating the disease that can give people a longer and better life.
“The good news is that thanks to research, we are already making great progress against cancer, with diseases that just a few years ago were lethal, now increasingly manageable for patients long-term.
“If we can finish off cancer evolution, we will effectively finish cancer.”