The inequalities gap in cancer survival across England seems to be narrowing, as fresh figures from the Office for National Statistics show improvements in the most deprived areas of the country.

Back in 2004, the government moved to address the stark differences in nationwide healthcare by singling out a group of ‘spearhead’ primary care trusts – which were amongst the worst performing on a number of criteria, including mortality due to cancer – to be the focus of reducing health inequalities.

While cancer survival rates remain lower than in the rest of England, the latest ONS data show that the spearhead PCTs delivered greater improvements in the 10 cancers assessed than elsewhere in the country, indicating that the divide between the least and most deprived areas is getting smaller.

The greatest improvement in survival rates achieved by spearhead PCTs between 1998 and 2004 was for prostate cancer, with one-year survival climbing from 89.6% to 91.5% and five-year rates from 70.5% to 75.4%, results that are on par with the rest of the country.

In addition, five-year survival rates for breast cancer rose from 78.8% to 80.5%, while other PCTs in the country saw figures climb at a slightly slower pace from 79.8% to 81.2%.

The progress made to reduce the gap between affluent and deprived areas is reassuring, said Catherine Thomson, head of statistical information at Cancer Research UK, but she also stressed that more work is needed to further narrow the divide.

Explaining some of the challenges, she said: “People in deprived areas may be more likely to take up unhealthy habits, like smoking and being overweight, and they may also present symptoms to their doctor later, making their cancers harder to treat successfully”.

40% of breast/bowel cancer ‘preventable’
Meanwhile, a new report by World Cancer Research Fund claims that over 40% of breast and bowel cancer cases in the UK could be prevented if people led healthier lifestyles.

The report estimates that 43% of bowel cancer cases and 42% of breast cancer cases could be prevented if people ate a healthier diet, did more regular exercise and maintained a healthy weight, and suggests that the incidence of many other cancers could also be significantly reduced by a healthier lifestyle.

Consequently, it makes 48 different recommendations to address the issue and encourage people to put health living into practice. “We have been fairly specific about what different groups need to do,” said Professor Sir Michael Marmot, chair of the WCRF panel. “But the report's overall message is that everyone needs to make public health in general, and cancer prevention in particular, more of a priority,” he stressed.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Richard Davidson, Cancer Research UK's director of policy and public affairs, said: “Around 13,000 cancer cases in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese. And even more are linked to poor diets, drinking too much alcohol and not doing enough exercise. After smoking, these are some of the biggest preventable causes of cancer”.

"Doing nothing could be disastrous,” he warned, and he applauded the report for “highlighting the need for a truly integrated approach to cancer prevention”.