Britain leads the world in cutting breast cancer deaths by saving 20,000 lives

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Deaths from breast cancer have been reduced further in Britain in the past 10 years than anywhere else in the world, saving an estimated 20,000 lives in a decade.

Deaths from breast cancer have been reduced further in Britain in the past 10 years than anywhere else in the world, saving an estimated 20,000 lives in a decade.

The 30 per cent reduction in deaths since 1989 is the sharpest seen for a common cancer. It is largely due to the widespread use in Britain of the drug Tamoxifen.

New government figures show a big improvement in the survival chances of women diagnosed with the disease.

From 1950 to 1989, rates of breast cancer deaths in Western Europe rose by an average of 26 per cent. By 1989, Britain had the worst death rate, with 51 women per 100,000 dying from the disease. But this has now fallen to 35 per 100,000, saving 4,000 lives this year alone.

However, Britain still lags the US and some other Western countries for overall death rates from the disease. In the US, breast cancer deaths have dropped from 39 per 100,000 to 30 per 100,000 women aged 20 to 69. In France, the death rate remained at 34 per 100,000 from 1989 to 1997. In the Netherlands the rate has eased slightly from 45 per 100,000 in 1989 to 43 per 100,000 in 1995.

Professor Richard Peto, co-director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's clinical trial service unit in Oxford, said: "This is the best decrease from any common cancer that has been seen in any country produced by treatment. We hear so much about Britain not treating cancer patients properly, but this shows the opposite."

Professor Peto and other cancer experts said the drug Tamoxifen, now given to about one million women worldwide, is mainly responsible for the decrease in death rates. He said use of five-year courses of Tamoxifen could on its own account for the fall, although improved surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy were also factors. Screening has not yet been in place long enough to make a great difference to death rates.

Tamoxifen works by blocking the body's own hormones from sustaining any bits of breast cancer wherever they have spread in the body.

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