UK breast cancer death rates falling fastest in ‘big six’ of Europe

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By Denis Campbell Health policy editor

Study says women aged 50-69 most likely to benefit, while those aged 70-79 will gain least

Death rates from breast cancer are falling faster in Britain than in any other of the six most populous countries in Europe, research shows.

The rate of death from the disease has fallen by 17.7% since 2010-2014 thanks to screening, earlier diagnosis and better treatment, a Europe-wide study [pdf] has found.

International experts in cancer incidence estimate that the UK had an age standardised breast cancer mortality rate of 18.39 per 100,000 people in 2005-2009. However, that dropped to 16.19 in 2010-2014 – and is due to fall again to 13.33 this year, they conclude.

It means that by this year the UK will have experienced the highest percentage fall – 17.7% – in its death rate among Europe’s six most populous countries since 2010-14. The equivalent reductions in other nations studied were Germany (12.5%), France (12.1%), Spain (11.3%) and Italy (9.7%), while Poland has seen a 6.1% rise.

However, the UK’s ageing population, increase in obesity and other factors mean that the overall number of people dying from breast cancer in Britain is due to keep on increasing, even as the death rate decreases. The disease claims about 11,900 lives a year and is the second commonest form of cancer death among women after lung cancer.

Cancer campaigners welcomed the trend, but warned that the progress still meant that Britain was only now reaching the European average for breast cancer mortality after many years spent well below it.

“It’s really encouraging that, thanks to research advances and NHS progress, breast cancer mortality rates in the UK are finally expected to catch up with the rest of Europe,” said Lady Morgan, the chief executive of Breast Cancer Now.

“But with incidence increasing and over 11,000 mothers, daughters and sisters still dying from metastatic breast cancer each year, this progress cannot come soon enough and we need to do much, much more.

“While this analysis represents very positive news, our rate of progress appears to be much greater than our neighbours largely because we have had some of the highest mortality rates in Europe for a long time.”

Researchers from Italy, Switzerland and the US, led by Prof Carlo La Vecchia of Milan University’s medical school, published their findings in the Annals of Oncology medical journal. It is the ninth year in a row that they have predicted numbers and rates of cancer deaths.

If Britain does see its death rate fall to 13.33 per 100,000 of population this year, this will put it slightly ahead of the EU average, which will be 13.36.

Women aged 50-69 are most likely to benefit from decreasing mortality, while those aged 70-79 will gain the least, the academics believe.

Death rates are falling for seven other major cancers too, including bowel, stomach, prostate and bladder cancer, they found. However they are still going up for pancreatic cancer. In lung cancer – which kills more Britons than any other form of cancer – mortality will fall among men but keep on rising among women, as a consequence of past changes in the gender balance of smokers.

Overall deaths from cancer are continuing to increase across Europe as a whole and will hit 1.4m this year, up from 1.35m in 2014, the co-authors predict.

Prof Fabrice André, the editor-in-chief of the Annals of Oncology, said: “Despite the good news that death rates are declining in most cancers, the bad news is that, due to growing and ageing populations, the number of people who will die from cancer is increasing.

“This represents a significant burden on society, and more needs to be done to prevent cancers occurring in the first place.”

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