The good news is that survival rates are improving in all of these countries, in all four cancer types – as you can see in the graph to the right (see figure 1).
Encouragingly, the team also found that the rate of improvement in the UK was, in general, slightly better than in other countries, particularly in breast cancer, where we have made extremely good progress.
However, taking bowel cancer as an example (figure 2), relative survival in the UK is the least impressive of all six countries covered in the research, despite the fact that it’s improved by nearly 6 percentage points from what it was in 1995-1999.
Figure 2 (click to enlarge)
Across all countries bowel cancer was, in fact, the ‘most improved’ cancer studied. However, the UK though bucked this trend and the biggest improvement was in a different area – breast cancer. This is probably because the other countries already had good breast cancer survival figures.
The data also showed that, of the three UK countries included in the study (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), Northern Ireland showed the best survival rates in all four cancer sites studied (figure 3).
Figure 3 (click to enlarge)
What does it all mean?
This is the very first paper from one of the ICBP, and it establishes an up-to-date picture of how cancer survival rates differ between countries. It provides an extremely solid platform on which future work can be based. And as the authors write, the results show that “data quality and changes in classification are not likely explanations” for what they observed.
But as such it doesn’t, on its own, tell us anything about why these differences are occurring. This is work that the other groups will hope to answer over the coming years.
The module one group plan to publish several more papers in the near future, including a more detailed analysis of the data they’ve collected so far. And the other ICBP groups are already examining a range of potential reasons for these differences in survival. These include:
The work of these ICBP groups, which Cancer Research UK is supporting, will ultimately help politicians and healthcare providers improve the outlook for cancer patients of the future.
Data collection is vital to demonstrating that cancer survival is improving
But there’s one final, and crucial, thing that these results provide us with – and that is evidence. There has been much talk in recent years of the need to protect frontline services in the current financial climate. But in order to carry on making progress as the country has done, we also need to ensure that the collection and analysis of information about cancer is also protected.
As our director of health information, Sara Hiom, told the media this morning, “reliable data – which are consistent across the country – are crucial to understanding the extent of the problem, and identifying the causes of survival gap within the UK and compared to other countries”.
As the government gears up to publish its new ‘refreshed’ cancer strategy in early 2011, it’s a point we urge them to keep in mind.
Coleman, M. et al (2010). Cancer survival in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the UK, 1995–2007 (the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership): an analysis of population-based cancer registry data The Lancet DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)62231-3