Death rates from cancer in Scotland have decreased by 14% over the past two decades but the country still lags behind other comparable nations in survival rates, a charity has warned.

Cancer Research UK looked back on the "pivotal" role its researchers have played in improving outcomes for people diagnosed with the disease to mark the 20th anniversary of its inception.

In the early 2000s, around 355 in every 100,000 people died from cancer each year in Scotland – today it is around 305. 

Some cancers have seen significant decreases in death rates, such as cervical cancer (down by 22%) and lung cancer (down by 19%).

However, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said that despite those "hard-fought" gains there was still a long way to go and she urged the Scottish Government to "make cancer a priority".


The latest Public Health Scotland data found that in the three months to September, just 74.7 per cent of patients started treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral, against a target of 95%.

READ MORE: Cancer waits hit 'terrifying' record low in Scotland 

It was missed by every health board in Scotland in the last quarter

Weighted scores, taking into account cancer policy consistency and survival rates, show Denmark at the top of the table, followed by Ontario in Canada and New South Wales in Australia, with Norway and Ireland also racking up similar above-the-mean scores.

Scotland came next, followed by England, with New Zealand, Wales and Northern Ireland at the bottom.

Cancer Research UK said improvements to screening programmes, research into more effective and kinder treatments and strategies that help prevent cancer from happening in the first place had all played a role in the decline in death rates.

In the mid-2000s around 10% of people with lung cancer in Scotland survived their disease for at least five years, now it’s 18%.

Cervical cancer death rates in Scotland have reduced by more than a fifth and are hoped to fall even more sharply for future generations thanks to improved screening programmes and the roll out of the HPV (Human papillomavirus) vaccine, both of which the charity helped develop.

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It was the work of Glasgow researchers, studying a relative of HPV found in cattle, that then helped to prove that a vaccine could prevent infection with this family of viruses.

Now, latest research estimates that the HPV vaccine has reduced cervical cancer incidence rates by almost 90% in women in their 20s who were offered it at age 12 to 13.

Some 86% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Scotland will survive their disease at least 10 years,

Michelle Harrow was diagnosed with the disease months before her 40th birthday and the mother-of-two, who lives in Dundee, is now in remission and getting set to celebrate Christmas with her husband Ronnie Harrow, 51, and daughters Samantha, 24, and Beth, 14. 


She has for three years benefited from the drug Tamoxifen - a life-saving hormone therapy drug for breast cancer in both men and women.

Tamoxifen began as an accidental discovery in the 1960s by scientists at pharmaceutical company ICI, who were looking for a new emergency contraceptive. 

READ MORE: Health inequalities to blame for 5000 avoidable deaths every year

After its development, Cancer Research UK scientists helped prove the drug’s effectiveness, paving the way for its widespread use, and Tamoxifen is now a mainstay treatment for premenopausal women with hormone-positive breast cancer.

The charity has also funded work proving the benefit of Tamoxifen in preventing breast cancer in high-risk women. 

Mrs Harrow is also on the Add-Aspirin trial, a clinical trial supported by the charity, which looked at aspirin to see if it can help stop cancer coming back after treatment. 

She said: "Hearing the word cancer was frightening at first. I was young and had no history of cancer in my family. But the cancer was diagnosed early and I’ve had a positive outcome.

"Now helping other people with cancer by encouraging people to fundraise to support vital research is close to my heart."

Since the charity was founded on February 4th, 2002, £5.4 billion has been invested in life-changing research, carried out at institutions including the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

In 2002 around three in 10 people in Scotland survived their cancer for at least ten years after diagnosis, now it’s almost four in ten.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said health boards are treating more cancer patients than ever before and said the government was taking a range o actions to improve the 62-day treatment standard.

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK said: “It’s wonderful to see the impact that the last 20 years of Cancer Research UK’s work is having on people affected by cancer in Scotland.

"From developing life-saving treatments to influencing governments, every penny of money donated has helped to revolutionise what we know about cancer and saved many lives.

“Despite these hard-fought gains – there is still a long way to go. 

"Waiting time targets to start treatment following an urgent cancer referral are missed every quarter and Scotland lags behind comparable countries when it comes to cancer survival. 

"By making cancer a priority, the Scottish Government can help us build upon the amazing work of the last 20 years."