Cancer death rates drop by a third but late diagnosis still threatens prognosis for many

Posted: 18/08/2014


The Daily Telegraph reports today (18 August) that the combined death rates for breast, bowel, lung and prostate cancer have fallen by 30% over the last two decades, according to data from Cancer Research UK Photo. Together these four cancers account for approximately half of the deaths from cancer each year in the UK – so a reduction in death rates of this level is a great achievement.

The statistics published show that, between 1991 and 1993, 146 people out of every 100,000 could have expected to die from one of these four cancers but, by 2010 to 2012, these figures had dipped to 102 out of every 100,000. The biggest reduction in death rates has been in those arising from breast cancer - which have reduced by 38% over this period.

Cancer Research UK's chief executive, Harpal Kumar, said: "Research continues to help save lives from cancer, and these figures offer renewed encouragement that progress continues. The UK remains a world leader in cancer research, responsible for many of the breakthroughs that have reduced the impact of cancer. But while the death rate for the four biggest cancer killers falls, it's vital to remember that more needs to be done to help bring even better results over the coming years.

"There are over 200 different forms of the disease. For some of these, the advances are less impressive, such as pancreatic, oesophageal and liver cancer. Far too many lives continue to be affected by the disease. 'We're determined that the research we fund will help save more lives, developing better, kinder treatments which will beat cancer sooner."

Philippa Luscombe, partner in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches, comments: “These figures are both impressive and good news for current and future cancer sufferers. To reduce death rates by almost a third over 20 years is a great achievement in the fight against cancer. We all see how much effort goes into cancer research for treatment options and great progress has been made with screening and with public awareness. A number of the cancer charities deserve credit for their contribution to research and public awareness - not just the well known charities such as Cancer Research but smaller charities focusing on issues such as bowel cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer etc - who all make a valuable contribution. Earlier diagnosis and improved treatment options are clearly having a significant impact.

“However, from a clinical negligence perspective, we see too many cases where cancer is still being diagnosed very late – and often too late to enable an individual to ultimately survive the disease. These are usually not cases with subtle findings or no reason to suspect cancer but cases with serious failings that simply should not have occurred. Examples from a selection of our current clients who have suffered a delay in diagnosis of cancer these include:

  • A patient at high risk of skin cancer not having an abnormality biopsied and biopsy results being lost
  • Abnormalities on CT scans missed resulting in delay in diagnosis of lung cancer
  • Patients with breast lumps who were reassured or only partially investigated
  • Previous cancer patients being screened and abnormalities missed resulting in a delay in diagnosis of metastatic spread
  • Abnormal PSA or blood test results ignored
  • Prolonged coughs not being investigated for possible lung cancer
  • Failure to use radiology to ascertain the cause of prolonged headaches and/or backache not responding to management
  • Visual problems not being investigated.

“In the vast majority of these cases there has been a clear and avoidable error and, in most cases, that has been admitted early. Sadly, the prognosis for these patient is poor and far worse than it would have been with appropriate care. Given that we only see a small selection of patients who are diagnosed and treated, our suspicion is that there are significant numbers of patients whose prognosis is compromised by inadequate medical care at the early stages of their disease. More focus needs to be placed on ensuring that guidelines are in place and followed and, where mistakes happen, lessons are learned, given the potentially fatal consequences of such errors."


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