UK ovarian cancer treatment 'lagging'

MRI scan showing up ovarian cancer The disease can be advanced by the time it is diagnosed

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Women in the UK are dying unnecessarily of ovarian cancer because of a lack of access to the best treatment, say experts.

The fifth most common cancer in UK women affects more than 6,500 a year.

Researchers funded by the Department of Health compared the survival rates of 20,000 patients in five countries - Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the UK. The UK ranked worst.

Its record of managing advanced stages of the disease was particularly poor.

Start Quote

The results show that the proportion of women with advanced disease is similar to that in other countries, but that survival for women with advanced disease is much lower”

End Quote Dr Bernard Rachet Lead author

Survival rates have been improving - more than two-thirds of women with this cancer survive more than a year now in England and Wales compared with fewer than half in the mid-70s.

But they still lag behind other countries.

Better treatment

As the symptoms of ovarian cancer are similar to those of other conditions, it can be difficult to recognise until the disease is more advanced, and experts had thought late diagnosis could explain the UK's poorer track record.

But the findings, in the journal Gynecologic Oncology, suggest problems accessing successful treatment are to blame.

Lead author Dr Bernard Rachet, of the Cancer Survival Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "Our research is the first population-based study to examine whether low ovarian cancer survival in the UK is due to more women being diagnosed with advanced disease, or to the outcome of treatment in the UK being inferior at each stage.

Ovarian cancer symptoms

  • Many women with a very early stage of ovarian cancer often don't have any symptoms at all
  • Symptoms may be very vague but can include pain or bloating of the abdomen
  • Other symptoms can include loss of appetite and changes in bowel or bladder habit

"The results show that the proportion of women with advanced disease is similar to that in other countries, but that survival for women with advanced disease is much lower.

"This suggests that the success of treatment is lower in the UK, and more effort should be made to ensure that UK women with ovarian cancer have the same access to the best treatments."

One year survival was 69% in the UK compared with 72% in Denmark and 74-75% in the other three countries.

Women with advanced stages of the disease fared the worst - 61% survived for at least a year in the UK compared with up to 74% elsewhere.

The UK was also worse at recording how far tumours had spread.

Although these percentage differences may not sound large, they are significant and big in terms of avoidable cancer deaths, say the researchers.

Past work by some of the same team suggested around 500 ovarian cancer deaths a year could be avoided in Britain if the country had a survival record that matched the rest of Europe.

Sara Hiom, of Cancer Research UK (CRUK), said: "This disturbing research advances our knowledge about what needs to be done to tackle lower ovarian cancer survival in the UK."

A recent study by the charity predicted that many cancers would see improvements in survival rates over coming years.

CRUK estimates ovarian cancer death rates will drop by 43% by 2030.

Gilda Witte of the charity Ovarian Cancer Action said: "We believe that women who have reached the advanced stages of the disease should have the opportunity to be treated within expert specialist centres, where they will benefit from the expertise of leading specialist surgeons implementing the latest research within experienced multidisciplinary teams.

"We know that when these conditions are in place, it drastically increases a woman's chance of surviving this terrible disease."

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