Britain is bottom of international league tables for cancer survival – and is lagging two decades behind some countries for some types of disease – a global study shows.
The research on almost four million patients by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows improvements have failed to keep pace with those in other comparable countries.
The 20 year study shows that patients in Britain have the lowest survival rates for five out of seven common cancers.
Despite improvements across all countries, the UK’s relative position now is significantly worse than when the study started in the 90s, when it fared worst for three out of seven cancers.
Britain is now bottom of the table for bowel, lung, stomach pancreatic and rectal cancer, second worst for oesophageal disease and in third worst position for ovarian cancer.
It follows British research which found that two in three cases of disease are not being picked up by GPs.
The new study, which covers the period from 2010 to 2014, published in The Lancet Oncology, shows significant improvements across all seven high income countries which were tracked.
But the lag between the UK and some of the other countries is so large that for some cancers it is two decades behind. Britain’s five-year survival rates for stomach cancer are 20.8 per cent - worse than those of Norway, Canada, Australia and New Zealand two decades before. The best-performing country, Australia, now has five-year survival at 32.8 per cent, a gap that has widened since the study began.
For ovarian cancer, UK five-year survival is 37.1 per cent - on a par with Norway’s rates twenty years before. In Norway, survival is now 46.2 per cent.
For bowel cancer, UK survival is 58.9 per cent, compared with 70.1 per cent in Australia.
Latest rates in Britain are worse than the rates in Australia or New Zealand in the 1990s.
Survival rates from pancreatic cancer are almost half of those in Australia, at 7.9 per cent, compared with those of 14.6 per cent in Australia.
And UK lung cancer survival rates are now 14.7 per cent – worse than those in Canada 20 years before.
The lag comes despite improvements in cancer survival in the UK, following repeated attempts to ensure patients are diagnosed sooner.
The greatest improvements were seen in rectal cancer, where five-year survival rose by 14.3 per cent over the period, with an 11.9 per cent improvement seen for bowel cancer.
In June a study by Cancer Research UK found two in three cases of cancer are not being picked up by GPs.
The vast majority of cases that turned out to be cancer were never suspected by family doctors, so were not given an urgent referral.
The study found that just 37 per cent of all cancer diagnoses in England involved patients who had been given an urgent referral by their GP, because the disease was suspected. Just 32 per cent of diagnoses for bowel cancer and 28 per cent of diagnoses for lung cancer were identified this way.
Without a referral, patients with bowel cancer waited an average of 61 days for a diagnosis, five weeks longer than the cases that were suspected by GPs.
The new research was carried out by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO agency.
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said: “We really need to redouble our efforts on early diagnosis.”
She said GPs were still missing too many cases, and even when cancer was suspected, shortages of hospital staff meant long delays for a diagnosis.
“GPs are strapped for time and don’t always take the right history and ask enough questions to take the right referral route,” she said.
“The UK tends to diagnose later than comparable countries and one of the key reasons is a lack of diagnostic capacity – in particular shortages in the workforce, of endcosopists, of radiologists and radiographers and of pathologists.”
Around half of all cancers are diagnosed at stage three or four, when disease has spread and is more difficult to treat.
Last year then Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to ensure that within a decade, three in four Britons with cancer are diagnosed at an earlier point.
But key NHS cancer targets have been repeatedly missed, with a flagship target to treat patients within two months not achieved since 2013, official records show.
From next year, patients have been promised a diagnosis or all-clear within 28 days.
A spokesman for the NHS said: “This report is based on out of date data and in the five years since the study’s research ends, cancer survival has actually hit a record high, thanks to improvements in NHS cancer services, including the introduction of revolutionary treatments like proton beam therapy and immunotherapy.
"The NHS Long Term Plan will build on this progress by ramping up action to spot more cancers at the earliest possible stage when the chance of survival is higher, saving tens of thousands more lives every year.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Cancer survival rates are at a record high, but we are determined to go further and save even more lives. Through our NHS Long Term Plan we will detect more cancers at an earlier stage, saving an estimated 55,000 lives a year."