Experts have disputed new data showing that the UK’s cancer survival rates continue to lag those of other western European countries.

The controversial findings appear in the most recent report from the EUROCARE project, which examines data on more than 13.5 million cancer patients in 23 European countries and says that the cure rate for patients diagnosed with cancer in England during 1988-99 was 34.5% for men and 49.8% for women. This puts the rate for English male patients in fifth place behind Iceland (46.6%), Switzerland (39.9%), Italy 37% and Spain (36.7%), but ahead of France (32.6%) and Scotland (30.8%).

England’s cure rate for women ranks sixth in the table, behind France (58.6%), Finland (58%), Sweden (56.1%), Spain (55.8%) and Italy (54.4%). Scotland’s female survival rate was in eighth place with 44.8%.

However, the study should not be seen as a European league table of cancer survival, said Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, because not all countries collect statistics to the same standards and some do not cover their entire populations, which can inflate their survival rates. Moreover, the study data covers people who received their diagnosis before England’s National Cancer Plan was introduced in 2000, so there will have been some improvements since then, she added.

Nevertheless, said Dr Walker: “we need to look closely at which areas we're lagging behind in and work out why.”

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Harpal Kumar also called for improved access to the world-class cancer services available in England, with measures such as improving recruitment in clinical trials and increasing the national cancer drug spend up to the average of western European countries.

Overall, the new study, EUROCARE 4, shows a rise in numbers of patients throughout Europe who are considered to have been cured of a variety of cancers; the cure rate for bowel cancer rose from 42% in 1988-90 to 49% in 1997-99, while for lung cancer it improved from 6% to 8% and for stomach cancer it increased from 15% to 18%. These increases are noteworthy and suggest genuine progress in cancer contro, because they are not affected by earlier diagnosis without improvement in life expectancy, said Dr Riccardo Capocaccia of Italy’s National Centre for Epidemiology, Surveillance and Health Promotion.

EUROCARE (the European cancer registry-based study on survival and care of cancer patients) is an epidemiology research project, based in Italy, which has collected and analysed survival data on patients diagnosed with cancer during 1978-84, 1978-98, 1983-94 and, in its latest report, 1988-2002.

Cancer Plan beneficial, says study

Meantime, new research by the Cancer Research UK survival group comparing cancer survival rates in England (where the National Cancer Plan was introduced in 2000( and Wales (which did not implement its formal cancer strategy until late 2006) has been published in The Lancet Oncology. Its findings suggest that one-year cancer survival improved slightly faster in England than in Wales during 2004-6, while the opposite had been true during 2001-3.

This reversal was much less obvious for three-year survival, and the different patterns suggest “some beneficial effect of the NHS cancer plan fro England, although the data do not so far provide a definitive assessment of the effectiveness of the plan,” says the Group.

Catherine Foot, senior fellow at health policy think tank The King’s Fund, agreed that while the findings are welcome they are “simply early snapshots. We can see the effect of the Cancer Plan in this data, but we will need to follow up survival rates for longer to see the full impact.”

Nevertheless, she added: “more cancer patients are alive today because the NHS in England has begun to get its act together. For patients, that means faster access to treatment and new and better ways of diagnosing and treating the disease.”