Cancer cure rates improving in Europe

In collaboration with the Press Association

The number of people in Europe who are cured of cancer is rising, according to the EUROCARE-4 Working Group.

Running since 1990, the research is the widest epidemiological study on cancer survival in Europe and the latest report contains data on more than 13,500,000 cancer patients from 23 European countries.

Analysis of cancer patients between 1988 and 1990 and again between 1997 and 1999 shows that there have been improvements in the number of patients who are considered to be cured of their cancer and who go on to enjoy a similar life expectancy to the rest of the population.

For example, during this time, the number of patients estimated to be cured of bowel cancer has risen from 42 per cent to 49 per cent.

Similarly, cure rates for lung and stomach cancer have risen from six per cent to eight per cent and from 15 per cent to 18 per cent respectively.

Dr Riccardo Capocaccia, from the National Centre for Epidemiology, Surveillance and Health Promotion in Italy, commented: "Increases between 1988 to 1990 and 1997 to 1999 in the estimated proportion of European patients cured of lung, stomach and colorectal cancers are noteworthy.

"The proportion cured is not affected by 'lead time' (earlier diagnosis without improvement in life expectancy), so these trends suggest genuine progress in cancer control," said Dr Capocaccia, guest editor of a special issue of the European Journal of Cancer.

The study suggests that the proportion of women cured of breast cancer appears to be tied to the introduction of breast cancer screening.

For instance, western European countries typically have a ten per cent higher cure rate for breast cancer than eastern nations such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.

Dr Capocaccia noted: "Part of this difference has been attributed to the introduction of breast cancer screening from the mid-1990s in several western European countries.

"If this is true, the implication is that early diagnosis saves the lives of women with breast cancer by rendering their disease more curable."

However, the figures show that there is wide variation between different countries in Europe in terms of the proportion of cancer patients who are considered to be cured.

Iceland appears to have the best overall cure rate among men (47 per cent), while France has the highest overall cure rate among women (58.6 per cent).

In contrast, just 21.3 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women in Poland were cured.

Professor Alexander Eggermont, president of the European Cancer Organisation (ECCO), said that EUROCARE-4 provides "essential information" on the pattern of survival across Europe.

"The good news is that, for most cancers, survival has increased during the 1980s and 1990s," he said.

"There were big differences between countries; however, most of the largest increases in survival have occurred in countries where survival was low at first, and this has contributed to a reduction in the disparities in survival across Europe."

The figures suggest that England's cancer cure rate between 1988 and 1999 was 34.5 per cent for men and 49.8 per cent for women - giving the impression that England is lagging behind the best in Europe.

However, Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said that the statistics "should not be seen as a league table of cancer survival in Europe".

She explained: "We can't directly compare cancer survival in the UK with some European countries because statistics aren't collected to the same standards in all places.

"Some countries don't cover their whole population, which can inflate their survival rates.

"And it's important to remember that these figures cover people diagnosed before the Cancer Plan was introduced in 2000, so some improvements will have happened since then."

Dr Walker noted that there are variations in the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients between the UK and other countries in Europe, but that we still do not know the extent of these differences and the reason for their existence.

She added: "We need to look closely at which areas we're lagging behind in and work out why."

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said that research conducted by the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative (NAEDI) suggests that as many as 5,000 extra deaths may occur every year in the UK compared with the rest of Europe.

"Cancer Research UK is working with the national cancer director, Professor Mike Richards, and others to address this problem," he revealed.

"We also need to improve access to the world-class cancer services that are available in this country - by reducing radiotherapy waiting times, investing in the training and specialisation of surgeons, driving recruitment to clinical trials and increasing the UK's cancer drug spend up to the average of western European countries."