Glaring gaps in cancer survival rates between the UK and other developed countries have been exposed in a major study.
The research, part-funded by the Department of Health, suggests that thousands of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are dying prematurely from common cancers each year.
In some cases survival rates in the UK countries were more than 10% lower than those elsewhere in Europe, Australia and Canada.
The study authors, including the overnment’s cancer “tsar” Professor Sir Michael Richards, said the findings were consistent with differences in time of diagnosis and treatment.
A more detailed examination of why survival rates differ between countries will be the subject of future research by the same group, the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership.
The scientists analysed data on 2.4 million cancer patients in the UK (not including Scotland), Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
They focused on four of the most important cancers - breast, bowel, lung and ovarian - looking at survival at one and five years between 1995 and 2007.
The results, published in an early online edition of The Lancet medical journal, showed that the life expectancy of cancer patients in the UK was consistently shorter than in other countries.
Only Denmark had a similarly poor record, though generally its outcomes were not as bad as the UK’s.
The findings were divided across three periods: 1995 to 1999, 2000 to 2002 and 2005 to 2007.
For the most recent period up to 2007, the UK had the worst bowel, lung and breast cancer five-year survival rates of any of the six countries.
During this period, 53.6% of UK bowel cancer patients were alive five years after diagnosis compared with 65.9% in Australia - a difference of 12.3%.
For lung cancer, 8.8% of patients survived five years in the UK and 18.4% in the best performing country, Canada.
The trend was repeated for breast cancer. While 81.6% of women with breast cancer lived five years in the UK, 88.5% survived this long in Sweden.
Denmark’s five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer was marginally lower than the UK’s - 36.1% compared with 36.4%. But rates for this disease were still significantly worse in the UK than in countries such as Canada, where almost half of those diagnosed lived five years.
Speaking in London, Sir Michael - appointed the Department of Health’s first National Cancer Director in 1999 - pointed out that cancer survival rates in all the countries, including the UK, had improved since 1995. Breast cancer survival had also increased faster in the UK than in most other countries.
But Sir Michael acknowledged that even small differences in survival rate translated into large numbers of deaths.
“The differences in survival that we’re looking at may not sound terribly large in percentage terms, but they represent substantial numbers of avoidable premature deaths,” he said.
“The overall goal… is to study these differences in survival in such a way that we understand what causes them and can generate an evidence-based policy to reduce them.”