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South Asian women have higher survival from breast cancer

The Cancer Research UK logo
by Cancer Research UK | News

29 July 2003

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South Asian women living in England are more likely to survive breast cancer than other women, Cancer Research UK scientists reveal.

Researchers also found that mortality rates in women of South Asian origin with breast cancer were up to 18 per cent lower than in non-South Asian women with the disease.

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, is the first to examine differences in breast cancer survival between ethnic groups in Britain. The findings will help doctors target their work towards people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures.

Examining ethnic variation in cancer survival in the UK is difficult, as ethnicity is not often recorded on medical records. So Cancer Research UK scientist Dr Isabel dos Santos Silva and her colleagues, working at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, used an established method of name analysis to identify patients of South Asian ethnicity in the Thames Cancer Registry.

The analysis showed that 10-year survival rates for women diagnosed with breast cancer were 73 per cent for South Asian women and 65 per cent for non-South Asians. After taking into account the baseline mortality of women of a similar age in the general population, South Asian women with breast cancer had 18% lower mortality than non-South Asian cases.

Dr dos Santos Silva, who led the research, says: “These findings complement previous studies showing that South Asian women are at lower risk of getting breast cancer than other women in England. Our new results suggest that South Asian women who develop breast cancer may also have better survival compared with non-South Asian cases.

“Further work will be need to confirm these findings and to explore the reasons behind them”, Dr dos Santos Silva says.

Until further work is done, scientists can only speculate on what could be causing any differences in survival.

“Possibilities worth exploring are ethnic differences in the biological characteristics of the cancer, factors such as diet and alcohol consumption, and access to and compliance with effective treatments. Many of the South Asian women in this study lived in or near central London – and their proximity to teaching hospitals offering the newest treatments might have been a factor”, she adds.

The findings don’t support those of previous studies suggesting that South Asian women, particularly Muslims, are less likely than other women to attend breast cancer screening or to go to their GPs if they note anything abnormal in their breasts. The new research shows that South Asian women in South East England are not presenting with more advanced breast cancer than non-South Asian women.

Dr dos Santos Silva says: “This study also emphasises that survival has improved in recent years in both ethnic groups, as a result of increasing breast cancer awareness, the advance of new treatments for breast cancer, and the introduction of the national breast screening programme.”

Dr Richard Sullivan, Head of Clinical Programmes at Cancer Research UK, which owns the British Journal of Cancer, says: “The study of ethnic variation in cancer survival has been neglected in the past. Ethnicity is often not recorded on medical records, so the data can be difficult to gather.

“Pinpointing what causes differing survival will be challenging work, but the knowledge yielded will enable doctors to tailor their work towards the needs of individual groups.”