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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