Cancer survival rates in Britain lag behind
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Friday 19 June 1998
Comparisons between the UK and the US show a significantly better outlook for American patients, irrespective of what cancer they have. For some cancers the difference in survival rates can be enormous. The figures appear to show, for instance, that American men are twice as likely to survive for five years or more with prostate cancer than their British counterparts.
Specialists, however, warn that there are differences in the way statistics are gathered, which may at least partly explain why Britons appear to be at greater risk of dying from cancer.
In the case of prostate cancer, most men with tumours will die of other causes before their cancer has had time to spread. In the US they are classified as cancer survivors, which is less likely in the UK. This is why more than 80 per cent of men with prostate cancer are classified as being cured in the US but the "comparable" figure is just 40 per cent in the UK.
Another difference that can skew the statistics is that in Britain there is a national cancer registry which means that the figures are truly representative of the whole population. In the US, however, the cancer statistics are collected by a few regional centres which means there is a greater chance of unrepresentative figures.
Professor Karol Sikora, an expert at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, nevertheless believes that the latest figures on cancer survival show that Britain is genuinely worse off than the US and many European countries.
"Most of us in cancer medicine believe we are falling behind. One of the reasons is the lack of investment in cancer care with the small number of specialists available compared with other European and north American countries," he said.
"The biggest problem in this country is that you can get the best care in the world and sometimes you can get very poor quality care. Some get first-class treatment whereas others suffer delays in the system."
People in Britain still regard the NHS as a charity rather than something they have paid for and as a result put up with delays in treatment, he said. "There are waiting lists for breast-cancer treatment of over three months in certain areas of the country. That would not be tolerated in France, Germany or America," Professor Sikora said.
Britain, however, should experience improvements in cancer survival, he added.
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