3 Oct 2012

UK ovarian cancer survival rates lag behind other countries

Women in the UK are less likely to survive ovarian cancer than those in Australia, Canada, Denmark or Norway, according to a study published today. The research from Cancer Research UK’s cancer survival group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that in the UK, 69 per cent survived for at least a year compared to 72 per cent in Denmark and 74 to 75 per cent in the other three countries.

Survival was lower among women whose cancer was diagnosed at a late stage and the difference was greatest for women diagnosed at age 70 year or more. In the UK, just 35 per cent survived for at least a year compared to 45 per cent in Canada. The UK was also much worse at actually recording the stage the cancer had reached by the time it was diagnosed.

While survival rates for some types of cancer, including breast and colon, have improved dramatically over the past 40 years. The UK record for ovarian cancer remains relatively poor.

And what this study shows is that there is no significant difference in the numbers of women with advanced cancers compared with the other countries. It is that the survival is worse, which now raises a number of questions about treatment and even the general fitness of patients by the time they are treated.

Question marks over treatment quality

The researchers examined the records of 20,073 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer between 2004 and 2007 to see how many survived beyond a year. This was then compared this with the other four countries because they have similar healthcare systems and collect data in the same way.

Dr John Butler, study author and Cancer Research UK clinical adviser for the project, said there are question marks over quality of treatment, which is lower than in other countries. But also researchers now need to look at issues such a the general fitness of patients.

“Even though patients are presenting with the same stages as other countries, they are less fit by the time they are treated in the UK,” Dr Butler said. “They may have a number of other health problems, or co-morbidities, which means they can’t tolerate the treatment.”

Agressive treatment

But there was also an issue with whether patients are being treated in the best places and whether their treatment is aggressive enough compared with other countries.

Hani Gabra, professor of medical oncology at Imperial College London, said: “This latest research demonstrates that earlier detection and the centralisation of specialist care for ovarian cancer are the key components needed to ensure that ovarian cancer survival rates significantly improve here in the UK.”

During the leadership debates before the last general election, David Cameron suggested that cancer survival rates in the UK were as poor as Bulgaria. It was widely accepted that this was not the case and that it was, for instance, impossible to compare care with Bulgaria because they have a different healthcare system and do not have adequate data collection.

Today’s research is part of an ongoing study into survival times. Last year the team were able to show overall median survival times in England and Wales – the time it takes until half those diagnosed have died – have improved from one year for those diagnosed in 1971-72 to 5.8 years for patients diagnosed in 2007.

Survival times
Six cancers, including colon and breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, have median survival times of more than 10 years. Colon cancer survival has improved more than 17-fold and it has doubled for breast cancer.

But today, the researchers said there needs to be an improvement in recording the stage the cancer has reached at diagnosis. Sara Hiom, director of information at Cancer Research UK, said: “The results show that achieving earlier diagnosis remains vital for improving overall survival. If women are diagnosed when the cancer is still in its early stages, before it has spread to other parts of the body, it is far more likely that treatment will be successful. In addition treatment must be improved for advanced stage cancers.”

Professor Gabra is the Director of the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre. If you are concerned about symptoms or would like more information about ovarian cancer please call Ovarian Cancer Action on 0300 456 4700 or visit www.ovarian.org.uk.

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5 reader comments

  1. lisa west says:

    My mum has just died of ovarian cancer after a 2 and half year battle. I am convinced that if she had been diagnosed early she would have had a better chance. She started having symptoms 2yrs prior to diagnosis but her gp in my opinion failed to pursue the correct tests effectively. She was referred for a colonoscopy 18mths before diagnosis due to persistent diarrhoea but as the tube couldn’t be inserted they left it and didn’t do any further tests. It was only after 2yrs when her abdomen became severely bloated with asetis fluid (9 litres?) that after exhausting tests for food poisoning etc they finally did CA 125 blood test!! If blood test had been done first then it would not have spread and the full hysterectomy and chemo may have worked. It would appear in this country the CA 125 is a last resort usually when it’s too late no matter how many symptoms you present with.

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    Victoria,

    Worry not. Privatisation will get it sorted.

    Those with money will buy themselves some time.

    Those without money will die.

    That’s the way “free markets” work in health care. Or something.

  3. Louisa Spivack says:

    I took part in a 5 year study into Ovarian Cancer at Royal Free Hospital, London.
    I was very interested in this as I was aware that Ovarian Cancer was a silent killer. However, on the first visit, all the women gave a blood sample. For the very small percentage that were going to be blood tested regularly, the sample was kept. Everyone elses’ was thrown away. It struck me then that, if anyone would have tested positive for ovarian cancer then, there might be no way of knowing the fact. It seemed irresponsible and wasteful.

    I was selected for the most ordinary type of testing – a biannual questionnaire. I did not find this adequate enough.

    Whilst at the hospital, we asked how might we know if we were developing the disease, given the importance of early intervention. The reply was rather non-committal – abdominal pain; bloating; sudden weight gain/loss. We were told to visit our GP for a blood test for any of the reasons already stated. When I went to my GP because of some abdominal pain, she refused to give me the blood test, saying it was inconclusive. She could not give me any reason for my abdominal pain. It was later discovered that I had a prolapsed womb and was given an internal ultrasound. Thankfully, I did not have ovarian cancer problems as well.

    I just don’t think that a lot of GPs are very helpful for post menopausal women when it comes to information about ovarian cancer. Little wonder we have such low survival rates.

    More information and publicity please.

  4. karen williamson says:

    Doctor’s need to be more aware of this dreadful disease in women, breast cancer is hugely publicised in fact ovarian cancer is sometimes linked to breast cancer particularly when there is the faulty gene present.My lovely mother died of this disease thirty years ago and despite several visits to a gp she was told she was too fit and healthy looking to be ill despite being in a lot of pain, no phyiscal examination took place until she saw a different gp a few months later who felt an abnormality straight away and referred her to a specialist by this time it was really advanced and she passed away age just 51.I am very very lucky and have a wonderful gynicologist who has spent a lot of his life’s work researching ovarian cancer I have choices/ chances for longevity that my mother just did not have. Indeed at one point of one of her visit’s to the surgery the gp told her he was going to refer her to a pyhsciatrist “who could perhaps convince her the pain was all in her mind” truly appaling when you mull that one over and I sincerely hope no woman ever has to be treated in that way in this day and age when seeking medical advice on having unexplained abdominal pain and post menopausal bleeding!!!

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