Early diagnosis of cancer is still a postcode lottery - survival rates show wide variations around UK
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Home > News > Early diagnosis of cancers must improve

7th December 2009

Early diagnosis of cancers must improve

A report, issued in December 2009 by Professor Mike Richards (the cancer tsar), concludes that one-year survival rates for patients diagnosed with cancer vary wildly around the UK. For example, a patient in Kensington and Chelsea who is diagnosed with lung cancer, is three times more likely to survive a year (43.7% survival rate) than if they lived in Herefordshire (15.4%). The national average is 28.1%.

The report, the second published by Prof. Richards since the publication of the Cancer Report Strategy in 2007, also concludes that the survival rate owes nothing to the rich-poor divide, as some apparently deprived areas have a good one-year cancer survival rate.

Diagnosis need to be made at a treatable stage

Until now, the health service has used figures based on a five-year survival rate, which means that access to drugs and surgery are also factors in a patient’s survival. This is the first time one-year survival rates have been revealed. Prof Richards suggests that a one-year survival rate is a better indicator to whether cancers are being diagnosed at an early, treatable stage. If a patient dies before the first-year marker, it is an indicator that diagnosis was only made when it was too late to successfully treat the disease.

If cancers are diagnosed at a treatable stage, Prof. Richards suggests that 10,000 lives would be saved each year.

Misdiagnosis of cancer symptoms

Cancers can frequently be misdiagnosed in the early stages, since symptoms can be very similar to those displayed by a patient suffering from many less serious illnesses. Awareness by the public of cancer symptoms is considered poor, and they can often be overlooked by the sufferer and their GP. More information should be made available to the public to increase their awareness of the possibility of cancer if they are exhibiting recognised symptoms.

Prof. Richards suggests that GPs need to refer more patients to hospital for diagnostic tests sooner. Prof. Steve Field (Royal College of GP’s) agreed, but said that GPs needed faster access to these tests, as well as more hands-on experience during their medical training.

Recent improvements on the treatment of cancers

In 2007, the Cancer Reform Strategy was published. This was a five-year plan that promised an extra £370 million to help improve care. Since then, more screening has been provided with faster drug approval and additional training, as well as more money for radiography equipment.

The NHS has a target of reducing deaths at the five-year mark by 20% (based on mid-1990’s figures) and they are very close to hitting that target.

Despite these improvements, the Patients Association believes that patients are still not getting fast enough access to drugs and surgery, whilst an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer has accused the health service of ageism. It claims that there is a lack of access for people over the age of 75.

European survival rates

The report also compares survival rates across the UK with those in European countries. The four biggest killers, breast, colon, lung and prostate, all fail to match the best rates in Europe for most of the NHS trusts. Prof. Richards states that raising awareness and promoting early diagnosis will help to improve cancer survival rates to match the best in Europe.

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