A newly published study reveals that cancer patients in the UK still face worse survival rates than other comparable high-income countries.
Pancreatic Cancer Action is calling for specific policy targets for pancreatic cancer as survival rates for the disease are particularly poor.
What was the study?
The International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership is the collaboration of researchers, academics and policy makers across different countries. Part of the projects aims are to understand incidence and survival of different cancers across seven high-income countries. This information can then be used to evaluate how effective the health care systems of different countries are at diagnosing, treating and curing cancers.
This study looked at seven cancers, including pancreatic, across seven countries and examined changes in incidence and survival rates from 1995 to 2014.
What did the study show?
In general, five-year cancer survival is improving across all the countries included in the study and for most cancers, survival is at a record high.
However, there were some important differences in survival by cancer site (type of cancer). Rectal and colon cancer had the highest survival rates, but pancreatic cancer was by far the lowest, and was the only cancer included in the study with five-year survival still in single figures (around 7% in the UK).
There were also important variations in survival by country. The UK was one of the worst performing countries for survival rates across cancer sites with the lowest five-year survival for five of the seven cancers studied, including pancreatic cancer.
What does this mean for pancreatic cancer?
Overall the study showed that pancreatic cancer survival rates still lag behind those of other common cancers and that survival rates in the UK are particularly poor. This is not the first study to identify that as other cancers are diagnosed earlier and treated better, leading to increased survival, pancreatic cancer is still being left behind.
Furthermore, without serious and meaningful action to change these statistics, they are unlikely to change. Five-year survival of pancreatic cancer in Australia is double what it is across the UK (14.6%). This figure shows that improvements in survival are possible and should prompt the government to look hard at Australia’s example to see where positive change can be made for patients in the UK.
What is Australia doing differently?
Australia is not only ahead of the UK for pancreatic cancer survival rates. For five of the seven cancer sites included in the study it led the way in terms of five-year survival. Survival rates have improved steadily across all cancer sites, including those with vague and nonspecific symptoms like pancreatic cancer.
The chief executive of Cancer Council Australia, Professor Sanchia Aranda described the differences between the health system in Australia and the UK. She pointed out the importance of early diagnosis and the fact that referral and screening services in Australia are well set up to manage this.
Primary care doctors (GPs) in Australia can refer patients for a full range of tests and investigations for cancer such as CT scans which GPs in the UK are unable to do. Instead they have to refer to a specialist who can then organise testing, creating a delay in diagnosing diseases like cancer.
Furthermore, there is a greater availability of scanners and investigative equipment in Australia. The country had the highest number of scanners available per capita than any of the other countries included in the study.
What needs to be done in the UK?
The UK needs to look seriously at policies to increase cancer survival and improve these statistics. Although survival is at an all time high, this study shows that we still lag behind comparable countries across many cancer sites.
Early diagnosis is key to survival and learning lessons from countries like Australia means granting GPs and pharmacists new powers to investigate patients they are concerned about. It also requires investment in the NHS to ensure that the scanners and other diagnostic equipment we need to catch cancer early are in place as well as the staff to run them.
Invest in treatment
We need to continue to invest in the treatments that patients need to survive cancer and the care to recover their quality of life and reach their goals.
Specific policy targets for cancers like pancreatic cancer
The NHS Long Term Plans sets out a target of 75% of cancers diagnosed in the early stages of the disease (one and two). For cancers with vague symptoms this represents a challenge that currently cannot be met. Between ten and twenty percent of pancreatic cancer is currently diagnosed in the early stages of the disease and for many patients, survival remains under six months.
Current policy to increase early diagnosis of cancers, like pancreatic, with vague and nonspecific symptoms such as the trial of rapid diagnostic centres are welcomed. More cases of pancreatic cancer are being diagnosed, but crucially, many cases are still caught too late, in the advanced stages of the disease.
What is Pancreatic Cancer Action doing about it?
Pancreatic Cancer Action is dedicated to improving early diagnosis of the disease. We act to raise awareness of the causes and symptoms of pancreatic cancer amongst health care professionals and the public. We provide a voice for those affected by pancreatic cancer at parliament and we fund research into early diagnosis of the disease.
However, we cannot overcome the challenge of early diagnosis and survival alone.
We will act together with charities representing other cancers with vague symptoms to push for a specific target for early diagnosis. This target needs to be backed up with policies such as those in Australia to create real change and make the progress in survival that pancreatic cancer desperately needs.
This study is not the first to show pancreatic cancer survival rates lagging behind others.
We are calling for specific policy targets and investment to try and ensure that it is the last.