UK is bottom of international league tables for cancer survival

Investing in early cancer diagnosis can play a big part in closing the survival gap.

 The UK ranks bottom for cancer survival, according to a major global study by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The research on almost four million patients over 20 years showed that improvements have failed to keep pace with those in other comparable countries.

The report, which was published in the medical journal Lancet Oncology, compared the survival rates of people diagnosed with cancer in 7 high-income countries: the UK, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway. It looked at 7 types of cancer: cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, bowel, rectum, pancreas, lung and ovary.

The estimated survival rates of people diagnosed with cancer increased in all seven countries over the period studied, however some countries did better than others. The UK ranked lowest of the seven countries for 5 of the 7 cancers measured, including lung, bowel, rectum, stomach and pancreas. For example, UK five-year survival for bowel cancer is 58.9% compared with 70.8% in Australia. For ovarian cancer, the UK survival rate is 37.1%, compared to 46.2% in Norway.

Despite improvements across all countries, the UK’s relative position now is significantly worse than when the study started in the 90s.The lag between the UK and some of the other countries is so large that for some cancers it is two decades behind: UK lung cancer survival rates are now 14.7% - worse than those in Canada 20 years before.

The researchers say overall improvements by all countries in the study are probably due to major healthcare reforms and advances in technology, which have led to earlier diagnosis, more effective treatments and better managing of patients.

John Butler, consultant surgeon at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London and Cancer Research UK's clinical adviser, said "The UK health system is under great pressure, with increasing demands on cancer diagnostics and more urgent referrals".  He said investing in early diagnosis and cancer care would play a big part in closing the survival gap on other countries.

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