Media scare stories about poor UK cancer survival rates are a myth created by differences in collecting statistics between countries, Dr Harry Burns, Glasgow's director of public health, told delegates.

'Arguing that Britain does badly frightens patients, demoralises staff and makes the management of the service much harder, ' he said. He added that the statistics repeatedly used to indicate Britain's poor performance in cancer services were derived from the Eurocare-2 study and were simply not good enough to compare the UK's performance with the rest of Europe.

French figures were derived from 3 per cent of the country's population, Germany's from 1.1 per cent and Switzerland's only from the 'unrepresentative' cities of Geneva and Basle. Yet UK figures were derived from 49 per cent of the population.

Other factors besides levels of investment needed to be taken into account when measuring survival rates, he said, citing socioeconomic conditions and the stage at which a patient presented with a possible cancer.

If more investment was made in patient education and health promotion, there would be considerable improvements in outcomes.

But that investment also needed to be backed by a change in culture - where patients didn't wait until they had been coughing up blood for nine months and were two weeks away from death from lung cancer before consulting a GP.

Dr Burns referred to recent conversations with two GPs.

One had pointed out that he was unwilling to 'fill his patients full of poison' simply to increase survival from four years eight months to five years two months.

Another described how his mother had finally been prescribed taxanes for recurring breast cancer which would increase her survival for a few months - but side-effects meant the rest of her life would be spent dependent in a wheelchair.