Breast cancer survival is lower in the UK and Denmark than in Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden, according to new research.

The study, published today in the British Journal of Cancer, was conducted by the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership.

The analyses - funded by the Department of Health and led by the Cancer Research UK Cancer Survival Group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine - included over quarter of a million women diagnosed with breast cancer during 2000 -7, and recorded in cancer registries in six countries.

Three-year survival was 87-89% in the UK and Denmark, and 91-94% in the other four countries. One-year survival varied less, from 94.3% in the UK to 98.4% in Sweden.

The study investigated whether international differences in survival up to three years after diagnosis were explained by differences in the stage of disease at diagnosis.

In the UK, similar proportions of women were diagnosed in the early stages as in most of the other countries, but survival was lower than in the other countries for women with late-stage breast cancer. The authors say this suggests that lower overall breast cancer survival in the UK is not because women are being diagnosed at a later stage than in other countries.

The UK also had the highest proportion of women with missing information about their stage at diagnosis. These findings suggest that older women with breast cancer and women with more advanced disease may be treated less aggressively in the UK than in the other five countries.

Dr Sarah Walters, lead author from the Cancer Research UK Cancer Survival Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The reasons for low overall survival in the UK and Denmark are different. In Denmark, women are diagnosed with more advanced disease, but survival at each stage is similar to that in other countries. In the UK, women are diagnosed at a similar stage as elsewhere, but survival is lower than women with the same stage of disease in other countries.

“The roll-out of national mammography screening will be expected to improve overall survival in Denmark. In the UK, we should now investigate whether the treatment of women with later-stage breast cancer meets international standards. There is particular concern that this is not the case, especially for older women”.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said: “International comparisons like this are vital in helping us better understand what is influencing cancer survival. We’re beginning to see some important clues now, but while we’re closing the survival gap for breast cancer UK women continue to fare worse than in these other countries.

"We know that UK women diagnosed with breast cancer are not routinely given CT scans to check if the disease has spread, which could mean we aren’t always accurately staging more advanced disease. But we also need to investigate the possibility that fewer women with later stage breast cancer in the UK receive the best treatment for their circumstances.”