Most women with early stage breast cancer will beat the disease and become long-term survivors, a landmark study reveals.
Patients diagnosed today are also two- thirds less likely to die within five years than they were in the 1990s. Experts hailed the “heartwarming news” and paid tribute to scientific advances that have boosted survival chances.
Oxford University researchers conducted a major analysis of all cases in England between 1993 and 2015. It included half a million women whose tumours were spotted early, before the cancer had spread beyond the breast.
Between 1993 and 1999, around 14 percent died within five years after a diagnosis. That figure fell dramatically to five percent between 2010 and 2015.
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s heartwarming news that women today have more time with their families and loved ones after an early breast cancer diagnosis.
“Receiving any cancer diagnosis is an extremely worrying time, but this study can give patients a more accurate prognosis and offer reassurance for many women.”
Around 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK, with around seven in 10 cases caught early, at stage one or two. Separate data from CRUK shows around three-quarters of all sufferers survive for at least 10 years.
The study, published in The British Medical Journal, will help doctors to provide more accurate prognoses, allowing patients to plan their lives. For example, a woman in her 50s with a small, low-grade, hormone receptor positive breast cancer which has not spread to the lymph nodes can be strongly reassured that she has an excellent prognosis.
The risk of death within five years was as low as 0.2 percent for some patients. Dr Carolyn Taylor, study leader and professor of oncology at Oxford Population Health, said: “Our study is good news for the overwhelming majority of women diagnosed with early breast cancer today because their prognosis has improved so much.
“Their risk of dying from their breast cancer in the first five years after diagnosis is now five percent. It can also be used to estimate risk for individual women in the clinic.
“Our study shows that prognosis after a diagnosis of early breast cancer varies widely, but patients and clinicians can use these results to predict accurate prognosis moving forward. In the future, further research may be able to reduce the death rates for women diagnosed with early breast cancer even more.”
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Significant advances in breast cancer care include research into different types and characteristics, which has enabled patients to receive more targeted treatment. But the number of cases detected annually is still expected to rise to 70,300 by 2040 due to a growing and ageing population.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, of charity Breast Cancer Now, said: “Today’s hugely welcomed research…is testament to significant progress made on breast cancer research over the decades.
“But we must be clear, breast cancer is not a done deal – 11,500 people a year in the UK die from the disease, and despite the tireless work of NHS staff, we know many women are waiting far too long for a diagnosis and are experiencing anxious delays to their treatment.
“Without urgent action from governments across the UK to get breast cancer services back on track, we risk seeing these decades of progress unravelling.”
Professor Peter Johnson, National Clinical Director for Cancer at NHS England, said: “The study shows why it is so important for people to not put off speaking to a clinician, and why the NHS has put so much effort into increasing early diagnosis, when the disease is easier to treat.
“So I would strongly urge people with worrying symptoms or those who are high-risk to speak to your GP to get checked out. It could save your life.”
Mairead MacKenzie, 69, has taken part in several studies to help scientists better understand the disease. She was diagnosed with high-grade HER2 breast cancer in 2002 and started treatment five days later.
Thanks to chemotherapy and surgery, she has been cancer-free for more than 20 years. Mairead, from Surrey, said: “The changes we’ve seen in breast cancer survival even since I was diagnosed are phenomenal.
“Whenever you get a cancer diagnosis, it’s a terrifying moment in your life. But now, women with breast cancer have a much better chance of surviving.
“Studies like this one can give reassurance to patients about their life ahead. When I was diagnosed 20 years ago, I was not given a prognosis other than the fact that this is serious and we need to treat you quickly.
“But good, clear communication about prognosis can make a vast difference to a patient’s quality of life, and how they can cope with things.
“It’s important to remember, though, that there is still a long way to go. Further research is needed to ensure that we continue to improve survival for everyone diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Hilary Stobart, 68, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She received surgery and took part in a radiotherapy trial.
Now Hilary has been cancer-free for 14 years and shared her views as a patient in a number of studies.
She said: “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you suddenly join a club that you don’t want to be part of.
“But you find you have an awful lot in common with the other people in the club. You have a different perspective on what’s important.
“I didn’t think the long term was all that important when I was diagnosed, I just wanted to know if I was going to be treated and if I’d still be here next year.
“But now I’m 10-15 years on, I realise it’s so important for patients to know their prognosis and understand what happens after treatment.”
Hilary, from Cambridgeshire, said she enjoyed taking part in the survival study because it shows the progress made.
She added: “There’ll be more figures needed in another five years or another 10 years, because breast cancer is not done. That’s really important.”
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