The British stiff upper lip could account for the country's poor showing in the European cancer survival league – but no one knows for sure, the Government's cancer tsar has warned.
Professor Mike Richards, the national cancer director, said thousands of lives could be saved in Britain if patients consulted their doctors sooner with suspect symptoms and were diagnosed and treated more quickly. Ignoring symptoms such as a lump in the breast, blood in the faeces or a persistent cough could be a death sentence.
Up to 11,000 deaths from cancer could be prevented every year if Britain improved its survival rates to match the best-performing countries in Europe, according to figures published yesterday by Cancer Research UK. Asked to explain the gap with Europe, Professor Richards said: "It is a very interesting question to which we do not have the answer. We may be too stoical – I don't know."
"We know that cancer treatment in Britain has improved vastly in recent years and we are now beginning to see the impact on our survival rates. But we have still got work to do if we are going to catch up with the rest of Europe," he said. "I believe that if we can tackle delays in diagnosing cancer, we will be able to save thousands more lives in the future."
Professor Richards authored a review of "top-up" payments for cancer treatment – allowing individuals to pay privately for drugs not available on the NHS – which was published earlier this month, and recommended quicker access to new treatments.
He admitted Britain had been slow in the past to take up new drugs. But he added: "I don't believe that had any significant impact on survival rates. I am quite sure earlier diagnosis is far more important. I feel really strongly this could make a real difference."
Under a National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative, launched today, research is planned in conjunction with a number of countries "whose survival figures we trust" to examine differences in culture, attitudes and awareness that could affect attendance for diagnosis and treatment, he said. Work is also underway in the UK to improve public awareness of cancer, with pilot schemes in 20 primary care trusts run by the Improvement Foundation.