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UK cancer survival still lagging other high-income countries

Charity suggests staff shortages in the NHS are to blame

Cancer survival in the UK has improved since 1995 but it still lags behind other high-income countries, an analysis shows.

The study by the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (ICBP), published in Lancet Oncology, looked at 3.9 million cancer cases between 1995 and 2014 in seven comparable countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and the UK).  

It is the first international study to look at changes in cancer survival alongside incidence and mortality for cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, pancreas, lung and ovary.

It found that one-year and five-year survival has improved across all seven cancer sites in the UK across the 20-year period.

Five-year survival for rectal cancer in the UK rose by 14 percentage points since 1995, from 48% to 62%.

The UK also has one of the highest increases in five-year survival – almost 12 percentage points – across all countries for colon cancer. This can potentially be attributed to advances in treatment such as better surgery.

Additionally, one-year survival for lung, ovarian and oesophageal cancer all increased by around 15 percentage points in the last 20 years.

However, the UK remains near the bottom of the rankings and has not yet caught up with the other countries.

John Butler, Cancer Research UK’s clinical adviser, who co-authored the study, said over the last 20 years there have been improvements in cancer planning, development of national cancer strategies and the rollout of new diagnostic and treatment services.

“More people are being looked after by specialist teams, rather than surgeons who aren’t experts in that area,” he stated. “But while we’re still researching what can be done to close the survival gap between countries, we know continued investment in early diagnosis and cancer care plays a big part. Despite our changes we’ve made slower progress than others.”

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said although the UK is on the right track, the numbers show it can do better.

“We will not see the necessary improvements in diagnosis and access to treatment unless we have enough of the right staff across our NHS. Cancer Research UK has been calling for staff shortages to be addressed because, quite simply, it will give people a better chance of surviving their cancer,” she added.

David Hare, chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, said independent diagnostics providers currently work in partnership with NHS commissioners and trusts across the country, bringing in new and innovative ways of working, such as deploying mobile facilities so that screening is more accessible to people’s homes and workplaces.

“With today’s NHS performance figures showing that the target for patients to be diagnosed within six weeks has not been met since 2013, it’s vital that this additional capacity and expertise is utilised so that the NHS to ensure it becomes a world leader in early diagnosis and treatment,” he argued.