UK cancer survival rates lag behind other countries

By Dominic Hughes
Health correspondent, BBC News

image captionBreast cancer rates have improved, but overall the UK lags behind other developed nations

Cancer survival rates in the UK are lower than those in other developed countries, according to new research.

An international study compared survival rates of cancer patients in Canada, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the UK (not including Scotland).

The Lancet journal report showed the gap between the worst and best performers is narrowing

However, the UK is still lagging behind, experts found.

The study examines cancer patients one and five years after diagnosis, a total of 2.4 million people suffering from four major cancers - bowel, lung, breast and ovarian.

Survival rates were highest in Australia, Canada and Sweden, while Norway was described as intermediate.

Stark variations

But while more people are surviving cancer than ever before, the rates were lowest in the UK and Denmark.

Researchers stressed though that the gap between the UK and the best performers is decreasing.

Survival rates for breast cancer in the UK in particular have improved and while the researchers will examine the causes of the differences in future papers, it seems late diagnosis of cancer remains a problem.

Professor Sir Mike Richards, the government's National Clinical Director for Cancer, says the information will be crucial in helping improve cancer care.

"In England we have already started work on improving early diagnosis, including a new campaign starting next month to alert people to the early signs and symptoms of bowel, lung and breast cancer and plans to give GPs more direct access to key diagnostic tests."

The UK had the worst bowel, lung and breast cancer five-year survival rates of any of the six countries with some stark variations.

In the period 2005-07, there was a difference of more than 12% in survival rates of UK bowel cancer patients compared with Australia.

For lung cancer, 8.8% of patients survived five years in the UK and 18.4% in the best performing country, Canada.

One of the report's lead authors, Professor Michel Coleman, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it was important to look at the overall pattern of survival rates to build up a clear picture of what is going on.

"It is not a question of examining whether particular cancer doctors or cancer specialists are better in different countries.

"It's the overall system and how people are channelled through it, to optimal treatment."

Sara Hiom, of Cancer Research UK, said while it was encouraging to see survival rates for cancer improving, the differences between countries needed examination.

"When the government refreshes its cancer strategy, it's vital to retain a focus on early diagnosis and on improving equitable access to treatment.

"Reliable data - which are consistent across the country - are crucial to understanding the extent of the problem and identifying the causes of the survival gap within the UK and compared to other countries."

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