Britain lags in treating cancer

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The Independent Online
CANCER PATIENTS should consider buying Eurostar tickets to France or Germany to maximise their chances of survival, experts said yesterday. Britain is near the bottom of the European league on cancer survival, according to a survey.

Its record is closer to that of Poland and Estonia than to nations of equal economic status such as France, Germany and Scandinavia. Death rates from common cancers such as lung, breast, bowel and prostate are well above the European average. If Britain could achieve the same rate of survival as the best-performing European country on each cancer, 25,000 lives a year would be saved. Even meeting the European average would save 10,000 lives.

Professor Karol Sikora, chief of the World Health Organisation Cancer Programme and a consultant oncologist at Hammersmith Hospital, London, said the best cancer units in Britain provided care that was the equal of any in the world, but the standard varied widely. "The problem in Britain is not that you can't get the best treatment but that you can't get it everywhere," he said.

The figures from the Eurocare II study compared cancer survival rates between 1978 and 1989, the latest available, in 17 countries covering 3.5 million cancer patients. They are based on the numbers surviving five years. For all cancers except those of the breast, this is tantamount to being cured.

On some cancers - leukae-mia, melanoma, bone, brain, testicular - Britain's record is as good as elsewhere in Europe. But on the common cancers it is significantly poorer. Five-year survival with lung cancer, one of the deadliest cancers, is half as good in Britain as in Fance (7 per cent compared with 14 per cent).

On breast cancer, Britain's survival rate is just over 60 per cent compared with 70 per cent in Germany and 80 per cent in France. On bowel cancer, survival rates are 40 per cent in Britain, about 50 per cent in France and Germany and approaching 60 per cent in the Netherlands.

Professor Sikora said the reasons for Britain's performance were a mystery. Speed of diagnosis and treatment were almost certain to be as good, with Britain's unique network of family doctors. "The finger has to point to the quality of [hospital] care," he said.

Figures showed Britain had fewer oncologists, spent less on cancer drugs and had fewer radiotherapy machines than other countries.