Charity reassures families over childhood cancer survival stats

In collaboration with the Press Association

Charity reassures families over childhood cancer survival stats

Cancer Research UK has responded to claims that children with cancer have shorter survival in the UK than in other European countries.

Professor Alex Markham, Cancer Research UK's senior medical adviser, told the BBC that British children with cancer "won't be getting treated better anywhere in Europe than they are now in the UK".

A Keynote Comment in the Lancet Oncology had claimed that children with cancer in the UK have shorter survival than those in other European countries.

According to Alan Craft, of the Institute of Child Health in Newcastle Upon Tyne, and Kathy Pritchard-Jones, of the Royal Marsden Hospital, there are no specific targets and children are a low priority for the NHS in the UK, despite standards set by the National Service Framework for children.

The researchers looked at Wilms' tumour (nephroblastoma) as an example and found that reported survival was worse in the UK than other parts of Europe between 1978 and 1997.

They also noted that a greater proportion of UK children had metastatic disease when diagnosed, suggesting that they were diagnosed at a later stage in the disease.

The authors concluded: "Suboptimum survival for childhood cancer is just one example of the worse state of children's health care in the UK compared with many other countries."

However, Cancer Research UK noted that there have been improvements in childhood cancer treatment in Britain since 1997.

Professor Markham said: "Today, five-year survival from childhood cancer in the UK has reached 77 per cent, and for some types of the disease survival is over 90 per cent.

"Specialists in the UK have been working with their counterparts across Europe to standardise and improve the treatment and management of children with cancer. In 1997, there were very few collaborative clinical trials across Europe - nowadays nearly all trials involving British patients have been developed in collaboration with European colleagues and are open across many European countries."

He pointed out that children with cancer tend to fare better if they are treated within a clinical trial, and that recruitment into such trials has "improved greatly" in recent years, with nearly 90 per cent of eligible patients in the UK now taking part in one.

Professor Markham also noted that some of the apparent survival differences might be down to variations in the way different countries collect their data. "Registration practices vary, and researchers often face difficulties accessing personal information because of restrictions around national death databases in some countries," he explained.

The authors suggested that the variation in childhood cancer survival in the UK could be a result of children receiving suboptimum first-line treatment or because of differences in routine health surveillance systems.

Professor Markham commented: "We recognise the concerns raised by the authors that differences in timing of diagnosis could account for some the survival difference and encourage further research to confirm this.

"The ongoing objective for Cancer Research UK is to control and cure cancer in all children, while minimising the long term physical and psychological side effects they sometimes experience with treatment."