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  • Health & Medicine

Late diagnosis linked to one thousand breast cancer deaths every year

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Nearly a thousand deaths from breast cancer could be avoided each year if short term survival rates in England were among the best comparable* countries in Europe, according to research presented at the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) conference today.

The study** shows if England matched Norway and Sweden’s survival rates for breast cancer, 957 deaths could be prevented annually in women whose cancer is diagnosed so late that they usually die within two years of diagnosis.

When breast cancer is caught early, treatment is often milder and more effective. Survival rates soon after diagnosis can be used as an indicator of whether the disease is being caught early or late.

Professor Henrik Møller, lead author from King’s College London, said: “This study has important implications for women in this country. We could prevent nearly a thousand deaths from breast cancer each year by getting the disease diagnosed earlier, particularly in older women.

“These figures show how important it is for women, and GPs, to know the symptoms of breast cancer and to act on them without delay. Going for screening when invited will also help to catch the disease at the earliest stage. Although women over 70 aren’t routinely invited for screening, they can ask their GP for a mammogram.

Each year in England, there are 1,183 excess deaths from breast cancer in England within five years of diagnosis. Of these avoidable deaths, 260 occur within a month of diagnosis, 557 between a month and a year after diagnosis and 140 deaths happen after a year but before two years since diagnosis.

Crucially, 81 per cent of these deaths occur within two years of diagnosis and mainly in older women over 80. This amounts to 957 deaths that should not have happened.

In England, over 38,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed each year and, overall, eight out of ten women survive the disease beyond five years. Breast cancer survival has been improving and death rates have fallen in recent decades.

Chris Carrigan, head of the NCIN, said: “We know that many cancers are being diagnosed too late in this country, and this study reveals the scale of the challenge for breast cancer in particular.

“More women are surviving breast cancer than ever before and we know that significant improvements in breast cancer treatment are being made. But we still have work to do to emphasise the benefits of early detection.”

Professor Sir Mike Richards, national cancer director said: “This is an important new study. It highlights the importance of early diagnosis in achieving the best possible survival rates for women with breast cancer.

“Survival rates have improved in this country over the past decade, but there is more to be done. Over the coming months we shall be looking at what needs to be done to achieve earlier diagnosis.”


For media enquiries, please contact the NCIN press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out of hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

Breast cancer survival in England, Norway and Sweden: a population-based comparison. Møller et al. International Journal of Cancer. February 2008