22/11/2011 05:46 GMT | Updated 22/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Cancer Breakthrough: Patients Living Nearly Six Times Longer

Cancer patients are surviving nearly six times longer than they did 40 years ago, research has shown.

A study by Macmillan Cancer Support said that median survival time after diagnosis (when half of those studied were still alive) has increased from one year to 5.8 years.

Sufferers of some types of cancer experienced even bigger increases in survival times.

Macmillan said the research reflected "real progress".

But the study also showed that for 45% of cancers studied the average survival time was three years or less, with little improvement made since the 1970s.

According to the findings six cancers, including breast, colon, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had seen dramatic improvements in survival times.

The biggest improvement was for colon cancer, which saw a 17-fold increase in survival times from around seven months to ten years. Survival times for breast cancer have doubled since the 1970s.

Other cancers, where survival times are still measured in weeks, including lung, brain and pancreatic cancer, have seen little to no improvement.

Survival times for lung cancer (11 to 20 weeks) and brain cancer (13 to 28 weeks) barely rose.

Macmillan said the findings demonstrated that there still exists a "cancer lottery" when it comes to survival times, because improvements in treatment are unevenly distributed between different cancers.

Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillian, said in a blog for the Huffington Post UK: "While it is fantastic news that more cancer patients are living longer overall, our research also shows that they are not necessarily living well. Cancer treatment is the toughest fight many will ever face and patients are often left with long-term health and emotional problems long after their treatment has ended."

Sarah Lyness of Cancer Research UK told the BBC that more research was needed for cancers that had not shown progress, inclduing lung, stomach, oesophageal, pancreas and brain cancer.

Peter Johnson, also of Cancer Research UK, told the Today programme that a combination of an ageing population and continued incidence of smoking and heavy drinking would mean that some the rate of cancer was not guaranteed to decline even as surgery and treatment options increased.