Survival is improving so rapidly - by 20 per cent in the last decade - that many breast cancer patients can now look forward to a normal life span, figures show.
In the early 1990s less than half of newly-diagnosed women (44 per cent) could expect to live 20 years, specialists said. The improvement, to 64 per cent today, is one of the greatest for any of the major cancers.
However, the incidence of breast cancer is increasing, with 41,000 diagnosed cases a year. The causes of the increase are disputed, with some scientists claiming increased exposure to environmental chemicals may be to blame, according to a separate report by the Economic and Social Research Council published yesterday.
Better survival of breast cancer is attributed to earlier diagnosis, improved treatment and increased specialisation by medical staff. New drugs such as Herceptin which have yet to be rolled out round the NHS could boost survival even further, experts said.
Richard Sullivan, director of clinical programmes at Cancer Research UK, which published the figures, said: "Women diagnosed today have a much brighter future than those ... a generation ago. Detection rates have increased as a result of the screening programme. And treatments have improved enormously thanks to the success of cancer research."
Professor Michel Coleman, cancer epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Med-icine, who produced the figures, said they were "exceptionally good news".
The only glitch was that survival rates in younger women, under 50, were lower than in older women and improving less quickly.
Professor Coleman said younger women tended to have more aggressive cancers and women aged 50 to 69, who qualified for regular breast screening, benefited from earlier diagnosis.
In the early 1990s, women aged 15 to 49 and those 50 to 69 each had a 60 per cent chance of surviving 10 years.
But a decade later, the two groups have diverged. Women aged 50 to 69 who are diagnosed with breast cancer are more likely to survive at least another 10 years than younger women. They have a 79 per cent chance, and younger women have a 73 per cent chance.
Professor Coleman said: "Overall, long-term survival for women with breast cancer has improved dramatically over the past 10 years and we are seeing even better survival statistics for women in their fifties and sixties."
Despite the poorer survival rates of younger women, Professor Coleman said it would not be justified to extend breast screening to them. Cancer was less common in younger women and screening was more difficult because their breast tissue was denser.
Some of the improvement in survival is because women are being diagnosed earlier but not living longer. Professor Coleman said that it was impossible to calculate what proportion of the improvement in survival was caused by this.
Professor Tony Howell, consultant oncologist at the Christie Hospital in Manchester, said: "This is an extraordinarily important result for women. In the clinic we can say to new patients they have more chance of dying of something else than of breast cancer.
Dr Sarah Rawlings, head of policy at charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: "This is great news for anyone whose life has been affected by a breast cancer diagnosis. Early detection, better awareness and improved breast cancer treatments are all to thank for these dramatic improvements.
"If we want to improve these survival rates even further, then rapid access to diagnosis and treatment are key but ultimately what we'd really like to see is breast cancer becoming a preventable disease."Reuse content