Early breast cancer survival rates soar from 14% to 5% since 1990s

Significant advancements in treatments for early breast cancer have led to a substantial increase in survival rates, according to a recent analysis by the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The study found that the risk of dying within five years of diagnosis has decreased from 14% in the 1990s to around 5% today. Cancer Research UK has welcomed the findings but emphasised the need for more highly-trained staff to cope with the growing demand.

Mairead MacKenzie, 69 years old, from Surrey, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. She underwent chemotherapy, a mastectomy, breast reconstruction, radiotherapy, and seven years of tamoxifen to prevent the cancer from returning. MacKenzie is now an active member of a patient-advocate group that assists scientists in understanding patients’ experiences. She highlights the importance of clear communication about prognosis for improving a patient’s quality of life and coping abilities.

The BMJ analysis examined more than half a million women with early, invasive breast cancer, mostly stage one and two, diagnosed in the 1990s, 2000s, and between 2010 and 2015. The study found that the prognosis for almost all women “has improved substantially since the 1990s,” with most becoming long-term cancer survivors. Researchers from the Oxford University-led study suggest that women diagnosed today also have a significantly lower risk.

Oncologist and lead researcher Prof Carolyn Taylor states that the positive findings offer reassurance for clinicians and patients. She attributes the improved prognosis to advances in treatment, increased cancer screening, and greater awareness of symptoms. However, the impact of the Covid pandemic on survival rates has yet to be determined.

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Cancer Research UK’s Naser Turabi acknowledges that the pandemic has been disruptive but notes that the trend was already worsening before Covid-19. He highlights the need for more highly trained staff, such as radiologists and oncologists, to manage the increasing demand and an ageing population. This sentiment is shared by radiologists who assert that the NHS is struggling to provide safe and effective care for all cancer patients.

In England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, cancer treatment should start within 62 days of an urgent referral by a GP. However, only 61% of patients in England and 37% in Northern Ireland are currently receiving treatment within this timeframe. Breast Cancer Now’s chief executive Baroness Morgan warns that without urgent action from governments across the UK to get breast cancer services back on track, the decades of progress could unravel.

The study did not examine trends for male breast cancer, which can occur in rare cases.

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Jamie Cartwright

Jamie is a keen traveler, writer, and (English) teacher. A few years after finishing school in the East Mids, UK, he went traveling around South America and Asia. Several teaching and writing jobs, he found himself at The Thaiger where he mostly covers international news and events.

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