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Half of cancers diagnosed at late stage as report shows early diagnosis saves lives and could save the NHS money

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by Cancer Research UK | News

22 September 2014

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A Cancer Research UK analysis out today (Monday) reveals that 46 per cent of cancers in England* are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat successfully.

This report shows yet again why we must do more to ensure patients begin treatment as early as possible, so that we improve cancer survival in this country. – Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive

The figures come as a new report** shows that if all areas diagnosed cancers as early as the best in England, for four types of cancer alone, this could save the NHS over £44 million in treatment costs and benefit over 11,000 patients each year. Extrapolating this to all types of cancer would imply an annual saving of nearly £210m, while helping to improve the survival prospects for more than 52,000 patients.

These potential benefits and savings are even larger when the expected growth in the numbers of people diagnosed with cancer over the next 15 years is taken in to account.

The report also estimates that if the best national levels of early diagnosis were delivered across the country, an extra 5,000 cancer patients would be alive five years after diagnosis. This would potentially go a long way towards achieving the Government’s cancer survival goals and bridge the survival gap with other countries. 

The stage at diagnosis – a measure of how advanced the disease is – varies greatly between different cancers. Lung cancer was diagnosed at an early stage in less than a quarter of patients compared to four-fifths of breast cancers***. 

Diagnosing cancer at its earliest stages – before it has had a chance to spread to other parts of the body – can have a huge effect on survival. Once a cancer has spread, it is often harder to treat successfully, meaning that a person’s chances of surviving are much lower****. Treatment also becomes much more expensive.

The Incisive Health report, commissioned by Cancer Research UK, estimates the cost of treating late stage colon, rectal, lung and ovarian cancer is nearly two and a half times the amount for early stage treatment. Treating colon cancer at its earliest stage costs £3,373 compared to £12,519 when treated at its latest stage. For ovarian cancer the cost rises from £5,328 to £15,081. Although the report examines data only from England, Cancer Research UK expects that a similar pattern would be observed in the other countries of the UK.

There is wide variation across England in the proportion of patients who are diagnosed with cancer at an early stage. 

For bowel cancer, there is a nearly a threefold variation in patients being diagnosed early when comparing the highest and lowest performing areas. In lung cancer the variation is nearly fourfold and for ovarian cancer it is nearly fivefold.

The report estimates that, without action to reduce late diagnosis, treatment costs for the four cancers will soar by approximately £165 million over the next decade, as the number of cancer cases rises due to an ageing population.

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “Diagnosing cancer at its earliest stages is crucial to give patients the best chance of survival. There are a number of reasons why cancer may be diagnosed at an advanced stage. For some cancers, such as pancreatic, symptoms are often only noticeable once the tumour has already started to spread. But for many others there are chances for the cancer to be picked up earlier. 

“It’s vital that people are aware of their body and if they notice anything unusual for them they should visit their GP. And GPs play a critical role of course, knowing when symptoms need to be investigated and referring patients promptly for tests.” 

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “This report shows yet again why we must do more to ensure patients begin treatment as early as possible, so that we improve cancer survival in this country. It provides a compelling case for substantial investment in efforts to achieve earlier diagnosis. Not to invest in earlier diagnosis is to fail cancer patients.

“Earlier diagnosis saves lives and it could save critical NHS funds – and in the face of an overstretched NHS and a projected growing number of cancers diagnosed in the years ahead, we need to do everything we can to ensure that all patients have access to the best treatment as early as possible.” 

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For media enquiries contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.