There has been a steady increase in the number of cancer victims who survive for five years or more. At the start of the 1980s about 25 per cent of cancer patients could be considered cured; this rose to 30 per cent by 1989, according to official statistics released yesterday.
About 200,000 people in England and Wales were diagnosed with cancer in 1989 and 60,000 of these survived for at least five years, said Dr Gillian Reeves, a senior researcher at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), which runs a joint project on cancer survival with the government's Office for National Statistics.
Dr Reeves said that the figures reflect a real improvement in the prognosis rather than just being a statistical effect caused by earlier diagnosis leading to people appearing to live longer.
"Simply diagnosing cancer at an earlier stage of its development can by itself create the appearance of an increase in survival. However, it looks as if the cancers that are showing an increase in survival are those in which we know that earlier detection or better treatment can improve the prognosis," she said.
The study of survival rates investigated 15 of the most common cancers, and although there was an overall increase in survival of about 5 per cent, the improvement did not apply to all cancers.
Survival rates for some of the most common cancers, for instance of the lung, prostate and pancreas, remained the same over the period studied. But for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, survival rates were higher than the average.
Dr Mike Quinn, the director of the National Cancer Registration Bureau at the Office of National Statistics, said: "These results are based on over 370,000 people diagnosed with cancer in 1981 and 1989 and represent the most reliable national estimates of cancer survival available to date."
Professor Karol Sikora, a cancer specialist at the Hammersmith Hospital, in west London, said there were several reasons why Britain continues to see an improvement in cancer survival, although it still lags behind many other developed countries. He said that people are more aware of the disease and are less frightened of consulting their doctor with signs of early symptoms. He added that there is better access to good diagnostic services than there was 15 years ago. "From research comes new techniques. There is much more precision about getting diagnosis right," he said.
The figures show that survival rates are slightly higher for women than men. This is probably a reflection of the type of cancers that women get - such as breast cancer - which have shown even better improvements in outlook, Dr Reeves said. It might also partly be due to women coming forward with health problems earlier than men, she said.
The success in treating many forms of cancer reflects a genuine improvement, said Dr Paul Nurse, the director-general of the ICRF. "These figures identify positive trends with some of the more common cancers, which probably reflect better detection and treatment," he said. "With continued research into cancer we hope to see further improvement in the future."