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Half of cancers diagnosed at late stage

Published on 22/09/14 at 11:00am
Cancer cells image
Cancer cells

A Cancer Research UK study out today reveals that nearly half of all cancers in England are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat successfully.

The figures come as a new report also out this week shows that if the whole of the NHS in England diagnosed cancers as early as those areas known to be the best, then this could save the NHS over £44 million in treatment costs – and benefit over 11,000 patients with the 'big four' cancers of bowel, breast, lung and prostate each year.

Extrapolating this to all types of cancer would imply an annual saving of nearly £210 million, while helping to improve the survival prospects for more than 52,000 patients, according to CRUK.

The charity says that these potential benefits and savings are even larger when the expected growth in the numbers of people diagnosed with cancer over the next 15 years is taken in to account.

The Incisive Health report, commissioned by Cancer Research UK, also estimates that if the best national levels of early diagnosis were delivered across the country, an extra 5,000 cancer patients would be alive five years after diagnosis.

This would potentially go a long way towards achieving the government’s cancer survival goals and bridge the survival gap with other countries.

The stage at diagnosis – a measure of how advanced the disease is – varies greatly between different cancers. Lung cancer was diagnosed at an early stage in less than a quarter of patients, compared to four-fifths of breast cancers.

High cost of late diagnosis 

Diagnosing cancer at its earliest stages before it has had a chance to spread to other parts of the body - can have a huge effect on survival.

Once a cancer has spread it is often harder to treat successfully, meaning that a person’s chances of surviving are much lower and treatment also becomes much more expensive.

The report estimates the cost of treating late stage colon, rectal, lung and ovarian cancer is nearly two and a half times the amount for early stage treatment. Treating colon cancer at its earliest stage costs £3,373 compared to £12,519 when treated at its latest stage. For ovarian cancer the cost rises from £5,328 to £15,081.

Although the report examines data only from England, CRUK expects that a similar pattern would be observed in the other countries of the UK. There is wide variation across England in the proportion of patients who are diagnosed with cancer at an early stage.

The report estimates that without action to reduce late diagnosis, treatment costs for the four cancers will soar by around £165 million over the next decade, as the number of cancer cases rises due to an ageing population.

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, says: “Diagnosing cancer at its earliest stages is crucial to give patients the best chance of survival. There are a number of reasons why cancer may be diagnosed at an advanced stage.

“For some cancers, such as pancreatic, symptoms are often only noticeable once the tumour has already started to spread. But for many others there are chances for the cancer to be picked up earlier.

“It’s vital that people are aware of their body and if they notice anything unusual for them they should visit their GP. And GPs play a critical role of course, knowing when symptoms need to be investigated and referring patients promptly for tests.”

Ben Adams 

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