Ireland ranks above average for improvements in cancer survival, study shows

Rise in five-year survival rate for stomach, lung and oesophageal cancers highest here out of 10 jurisdictions

Ireland has some of the fastest-improving survival rates for common cancers, according to a study that highlights the importance of having formal plans and policies to tackle the disease.

The improvement in the five-year survival rate for stomach, lung and oesophageal cancers in Ireland between 1995-1999 and 2010-2014 was the highest of 10 jurisdictions included in the international study published in Lancet Oncology on Monday.

Ireland experienced the second-highest improvement in rectal cancer and the third highest in colon cancer, according to the research by the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership.

Overall, Ireland ranked fifth of the 10 locations in the study for consistency of its cancer policies, behind Denmark, New South Wales in Australia, Ontario in Canada, and Norway.

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Northern Ireland ranked lowest, and England, Scotland, Wales and New Zealand were also rated lower than the Republic.

Across the seven cancers examined, Denmark scored highest and also showed among the highest increases in survival. Ireland and Norway scored above average and also showed substantial improvements in survival for most cancers.

“The study highlights the importance of having cancer control plans, policies and dedicated funding that are consistent over time, in order to ensure the best outcomes for people with cancer,” according to co-author Mark Lawler, professor of digital health at Queen’s University Belfast.

For six of the seven cancers examined in the study, researchers found a correlation between a consistent cancer control policy and better five-year survival for cancer patients over time. The exception was oesophageal cancer.

“In Ireland, survival for lung, pancreas, rectal and oesophageal cancer accelerated from the late 2000s, probably reflecting the programme of service centralisation for these cancer sites as per the 2006 cancer plan and its implementation from 2009,” the study said.

“This acceleration of survival highlights the effect that targeted initiatives can have in light of wider resource constraints, as Ireland was seeking to protect cancer services in the context of the global financial crisis of 2007—08.”

Collaborative work between the Republic and Northern Ireland has also benefited the treatment of oesophageal cancer in Northern Ireland, the study said.

According to Prof Lawler, Ireland’s above average ranking reflected the emphasis placed on cancer policy here, with a dedicated National Cancer Control Programme and a ring-fenced cancer budget. The acceleration in survival rates is at least partly due to the centralisation of services envisaged in a cancer plan published in 2006 and implemented from 2009 on.

However, he added, a lot more could be achieved by learning from Denmark’s approach, especially its focus on early diagnosis.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times