Study rings warning bell over cancer therapy access in UK

Study rings warning bell over cancer therapy access in UK

Studies have suggested that cancer survival rates in the UK are lagging behind other countries by around 10 to 15 years because of lower rates of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The analysis by researchers at UCL looked at differences in treatment and survival rates in more than 780,000 patients diagnosed between 2012 and 2017 with eight types of cancer across four equivalent countries – the UK, Australia, Norway, and Canada.

It found that, in general, UK patients were less likely to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy and, for those that did, the wait before treatment was significantly longer, allowing the cancer to develop further before intervention. The study looked at oesophageal, stomach, colon, rectal, liver, pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancers.

Among the findings were that 29% of colon cancer patients in the UK underwent chemo, compared to 31% in Norway and 34% in Canada and Australia. One of the widest gaps was observed in pancreatic cancer, with a 27% rate of chemo in the UK, well behind Canada’s 41%, Norway’s 47%, and Australia’s 50%.

Survival rates also worse

The results – which are published in The Lancet Oncology – showed that the disparities in access to therapy were shadowed by differences in survival rates. For example, the five-year survival rate for stage three colon cancer patients in the UK stood at 63%, versus 70% in Canada and Australia, and 71% in Norway.

The starkest differences between countries were seen among older patients, according to the researchers. Just 2.4% of UK patients aged 85 and over received chemotherapy, compared to 8.1% in Australia and 14% in Canada.

Countries with higher rates of cancer survival tended to have higher rates of chemo and radiotherapy use, according to Cancer Research UK (CRUK), which part-funded the study.

The charity said the UK is being hit by inadequate capacity in the NHS workforce, long waiting times for tests and treatment, and regional variations that mean, for example, that access to radiotherapy is lower in Northern Ireland and Scotland than in England and Wales.

The average time to start chemotherapy was also 48 days in England, compared to 57 in Northern Ireland, 58 in Wales and 65 in Scotland.

“The UK should be striving for world-leading cancer outcomes. All cancer patients, no matter where they live, deserve to receive the highest quality care,” commented CRUK's chief executive, Michelle Mitchell.

“When it comes to treating cancer, timing really matters,” she added. “Behind these statistics are people waiting anxiously to begin treatment that is key to boosting their chances of survival.”

Last year, the CRUK said that gains made by the UK on cancer survival rates in recent decades could go into reverse, due to a failure to identify patients with earlier-stage cancers and delays in starting treatment.

27 February, 2024