Researchers have called for further investigation into why the healthcare costs of cancer vary so significantly from country to country within Europe.

An analysis of the economic burden of cancer by researchers at Oxford University and King's College London, published in The Lancet and funded by Pfizer, has revealed that the disease costs the European Union a massive 126 billion euros a year.

But delving deeper into the data revealed stark differences on a national basis.

Cancer in Germany, France, Italy, and the UK together accounted for just over two-thirds of this cost (83 billion euros).

And overall healthcare costs (including that spent on medicines and doctors) of cancer came in at 51 billion euros (in 2009), but ranged from 16 euros per person in Bulgaria to 184 euros per person in Luxembourg.

These wide differences between countries need further investigation, the researchers said.

The study also showed that productivity losses because of early death cost 42·6 billion euros and lost working days 9·43 billion euros.

Lung cancer had the highest economic cost at 18·8 billion euros, accounting for 15% of overall cancer costs, followed by breast cancer (15·0 billion euros, 12%), colorectal cancer (13·1 billion euros, 10%), and prostate cancer (8·43 billion euros, 7%).

"It is vital that decision-makers across Europe use this information to identify and prioritise key areas," said Professor Richard Sullivan, King’s Health Partners Integrated Cancer Centre, King's College London. "More effective targeting of investment may prevent healthcare systems from reaching breaking point – a real danger given the increasing burden of cancer – and in some countries better allocation of funding could even improve survival rates," he stressed.

Sara Osborne, head of policy at Cancer Research UK, said the study "reinforces why research is vital to improve our understanding of the causes of cancer - so that we lessen the impact of the disease and develop better ways to prevent and treat the illness".

"We also need to understand why the UK's cancer mortality rates remain higher than many EU countries despite a similar spend on cancer care," she told the Associated Press.