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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 May 19; 334(7602): 1021.
PMCID: PMC1871771

Experts dispute claims of poor cancer survival in UK

Senior experts on cancer have defended the UK's record on survival from cancer against claims that it is among the worst in the Western world.

Michel Coleman, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said this month's headline grabbing report by Karolinska Institute researchers claiming that the United Kingdom was languishing near the bottom of the rich countries league table for cancer survival was “statistically crude and incorrect.”

“We don't accept their results,” Professor Coleman said. “For France they claimed [that] the five year, all cancer survival for women was 71%. If you tell French cancer specialists that they will laugh in your face.”

Mike Richards, the UK government's clinical director for cancer, noted that some of the Swedish researchers' statistics on survival, which linked poor outcomes in the UK to low uptake of new drugs, concerned a period when most of the “new drugs” had yet to become available.

He predicted that the latest figures from the European cancer registries study on cancer patients' survival and care (Eurocare), which are due this autumn, would show major improvements in survival in the UK. “And it's interesting to think that these figures only take us up to 2002 and that there may have been further improvements since then,” he said.

The comments came as Professor Coleman announced results from his new research, conducted for Cancer Research UK, showing that 10 year survival for all cancers in England and Wales has doubled in the past 30 years.

The figures show that although survival varies widely with different types of cancer, on average a patient with cancer now has a 46% chance of being alive 10 years after diagnosis, whereas 30 years ago the figure was 24%. Overall five year survival is now 50%.

However, Professor Richards agreed with Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, that uptake of new drugs was lower in the UK than in other rich countries.

“This is something that we are concerned about,” said Mr Kumar. “We know that the UK has a lower uptake than the rest of Europe.”

He said that his organisation was urging the government to look at drug pricing levels and to rethink the way that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence worked.

However, he added that the latest figures showed that new drugs were only one factor among many that influenced survival and said that as much attention should be paid to prevention and early diagnosis.

Discussing his results for England and Wales, Professor Coleman said, “Behind the overall figures lie both disappointments and success stories. Pancreatic cancer and lung cancer both remain low on the scale and have seen little improvement.

“On the other hand, survival rates for breast cancer have improved significantly. Almost two thirds of all women newly diagnosed with breast cancer are now likely to survive for at least 20 years. And five year survival for bowel cancer has risen from 40% to almost 46% over the last decade.”

Mr Kumar said, “We read a lot of negative stories about the UK's place in Europe, so it's encouraging that these figures show such dramatic improvements in cancer survival.

“There's quite a lot more to celebrate—but a lot more to do.”

Mr Kumar announced 10 new goals to be achieved by 2020 as part of a Cancer Research UK fundraising drive. One of the new goals was to increase overall five year survival from cancer to more than two thirds of patients by 2020. Other pledges were to boost people's awareness of how to prevent cancer, discourage smoking, achieve earlier diagnosis, and reduce the incidence of cancer in low socioeconomic groups.

“In the most deprived areas, cancer death rates for men are 70% higher [than other areas] for men and 40% higher for women. We want to cut this shocking statistic in half,” Mr Kumar said.

Professor Richards said that the 10 goals were “both ambitious and achievable.”

(See Feature doi: 10.1136/bmj.39217.457569.59.)

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