breast cancer screening in the news

Are we getting blasé about cancer screening?

We’re always keen to promote good news, but three recent news stories have surfaced all at once which need to be discussed.

The first report: figures released by NHS Digital confirmed that the numbers of smear tests being carried out in the UK have reached a twenty-year low, having fallen across all age groups.

The second report: additional figures released by NHS Digital claiming that the proportion of women taking up breast screening has fallen to its lowest level in a decade.

The third report, and perhaps the most alarming of all: figures released by The Lancet claim that the UK is falling behind the rest of Europe in cancer survival rates and are migrating towards the lower end of the global league, leading to national health charities – who have been alerting the general public about this for years – upping their protests.

The Lancet study, which analysed the records and survival rates of 37.5 million patients with 18 of the most common cancers, revealed that while cancer survival rates had improved slightly in the UK over the past 20 years, other areas – including North America, Australasia and Scandinavia – have made far greater advances, and if this country had matched the European average, we could be preventing around 10,000 cancer-related deaths every year.

We’re falling behind

When it comes to breast cancer, the UK ranked 26th in the world out of 63 countries analysed, with a five-year survival rate of 85.6 per cent. In comparison, the survival rate is 89.5% in Australia and 90.2 per cent in the USA, while India has a 66.1 per cent survival rate – and worldwide, there has been a general increase in breast cancer survival rates.

While the UK has seen improvements in breast cancer treatment, due to an increase in funding, the overall proportion of GDP spent on healthcare in the UK is clearly lower than other countries. As Researcher Professor Michel Coleman of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine points out; “We need to increase the spending on health services and stabilise the NHS rather than reorganising it every six months.”

It’s your responsibility to get checked out

However, there’s only so much the authorities can do – and no amount of organisation and expense can make a difference if the general public aren’t responding, and the drop in cancer testing in the UK is rather alarming. In the case of smear testing, experts are pointing out that this could be a combination of the spike in tests caused by the news reports over the death of Jade Goody in 2009 having long tailed off, combined with the success rate of the HPV vaccination. Other factors include a lack of sexual health services and a failure in local authorities to increase screening attendance.

In the case of breast cancer screenings, there hasn’t been a ‘Jade moment’ – but it’s a shame that there needs to be in order to encourage people to get checked out. One statistic that leaped out from the recent findings was that of all women with cancers detected through screening in 2016-17, 41.5 per cent had invasive but small cancers – which are less than 15mm in diameter and are usually too small to detect by hand. Our advice – don’t ignore those reminders from your local health authority.