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Postcode lottery in early cancer diagnosis revealed

Cancer Research UK reveals that a patient’s chances of early diagnosis varies according to where they live

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Nearly 20,000 more patients over 20 years could be diagnosed with stage 1 or 2 cancer, giving them a better chance of survival, if all regions in England performed as well as the South West in diagnosing cancer, an analysis by Cancer Research UK shows.

Analysts looked at available data on 10 types of cancer across 25 areas of England in 2012 and 2013, and whether the disease was diagnosed early – at stage 1 or 2 – or later, at stage 3 or 4. They found that Bath, Gloucestershire, Swindon and Wiltshire had the lowest proportion of late stage cancer diagnoses (40%) followed by Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly (43%). In contrast 49% of cancers were diagnosed at late stage in Merseyside and 48% in Greater Manchester. If Merseyside reached the level of the South West almost 1,000 more of all its cancer patients would have had an earlier diagnosis and a greater chance of beating their disease.

They found that people’s chances of being diagnosed early depends on which type of cancer they have, with areas that were among the best for diagnosing one type of cancer early not always doing as well when it came to other types of the disease. For example, although East Anglia was the best place for detecting bowel cancer at an early stage, it was almost the worst for spotting melanoma skin cancer early.

When breast cancer was looked at in detail, the figures show that, where staging was recorded, almost a quarter of breast cancer patients in London were diagnosed late compared to just 10% in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. This equates to around 1,000 London breast cancer patients missing out on an earlier diagnosis.

Merseyside came bottom for early diagnosis of bowel cancer, with almost 60% of patients diagnosed late compared with half of bowel cancer patients in East Anglia, which came top. This equates to almost 140 Merseyside patients missing the chance of their bowel cancer being diagnosed earlier.

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “Wherever you live, an early diagnosis of cancer will give you more treatment options and a better chance of survival. So it’s unacceptable to see such variation across England, with some areas falling far behind others in prompt diagnosis of different cancers.”

She added: “We need to ensure that people with unusual or persistent changes to their bodies seek help rather than ignoring or putting up with potential cancer symptoms. And we need a system where GPs are supported in the diagnosis of cancer and there are the resources to ensure patients can be investigated promptly. The new cancer strategy makes clear recommendations on how we can improve England’s cancer survival, and improvement is needed across the whole of the UK.”

Cancer Research UK is launching a nationwide Early Diagnosis Campaign next week. The campaign will encourage people to know what’s normal for their bodies so they spot unusual changes and see their GP about possible cancer symptoms without delay. Survival for some of the most common types of cancer is known to be more than three times higher when the disease is diagnosed in the earlier stages.

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