Breast cancer survival is soaring, with almost 60% of all women newly diagnosed with the disease surviving for at least 20 years, according to new figures released by cancer charity Cancer Research UK. Moreover, women aged between 50 and 69 are considered to have an even better prognosis, with 72% likely to reach the 20-year mark and at least 80% expected to survive at least 10 years.

This finding marks a giant leap in outcomes from just a decade ago, when patients diagnosed with breast cancer had a 54% chance of 10 years-plus survival and a 44% chance of surviving more than 20 years, rates which are now predicted to improve by 17%-20%. Cancer Research UK epidemiologist Professor Michel Coleman’s analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics on breast cancer diagnoses between 1971and 2001 also indicates that survival chances for younger women will also improve, albeit a little less dramatically than in older age groups. In the early 1990s, women diagnosed before the age of 50 had a 60% chance of surviving 10 years and a 50% chance of surviving 20 years, figures that are now forecast to increase to 73% and 64%, respectively.

Dr Richard Sullivan, director of clinical programmes at Cancer Research UK, commented: “This is tremendous news for breast cancer patients who have been recently diagnosed. This is the first time we have been able to predict such a huge improvement in long-term survival figures.” He went on to say: "Women diagnosed today have a much brighter future than those who faced breast cancer a generation ago. Detection rates have certainly increased as a result of the breast-screening programme, and breast cancer treatments have improved enormously thanks to the success of cancer research - so much of which is funded through the generosity of the public."

Extensive research into new therapies for breast cancer, by far the most common cancer in females, has given rise to a variety of novel treatment approaches, including Roche’s Herceptin (trastuzumab), first approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1998 for use in women with advanced breast cancer. The drug is also likely to gain clearance for treatment of early-stage forms of the disease, since clinical studies have shown that its addition to chemotherapy can cut the chance of cancer recurrence by a hugely-significant 51% [[14/09/05d]], representing a further important advance in the treatment of this disease. Roche plans to file for approval of Herceptin in early breast cancer in the first half of next year.