Mortality rates from breast cancer are predicted to fall in the UK and across Europe (except for in Poland) by 2019, according to new research published today in journal Annals of Oncology.

In the study, researchers at the University of Milan looked at cancer death rates in the 28 EU Member States as a whole and in the six largest countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – for both all cancers and cancers in the breast, stomach, intestines, pancreas, lung, uterus, ovary, prostate and bladder, as well as leukaemias.

The researchers predicted that age-standardised death rates from breast cancer – the UK’s most common cancer – will fall this year by nearly 9% in the EU compared to 2014. The authors conclude that this is likely to be due to improvements in screening, early diagnosis and treatment, as well as the reduction in the use of hormone replacement therapy.

The analysis predicted that age-standardised mortality rates for breast cancer in the EU would fall to 13.36 per 100,000 women in 2019, down from the observed rate in 2014 of 14.64 per 100,000 women – with rates in the UK falling to 13.33 per 100,000 in 2019, down from the observed rate in 2014 of 15.38.

Of the six largest countries, the UK also had the greatest predicted decrease in breast cancer deaths for 2019 (13%), followed by France (10%), Germany (9%), Italy (7%), Spain (5%), while in Poland there is a predicted 2% increase.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said:

It’s really encouraging that, thanks to research advances and NHS progress, breast cancer mortality rates in the UK are finally expected to catch up with the rest of Europe. But with incidence increasing and over 11,000 mothers, daughters and sisters still dying from metastatic breast cancer each year, this progress cannot come soon enough and we need to do much, much more.

While this analysis represents very positive news, our rate of progress appears to be much greater than our neighbours largely because we have had some of the highest mortality rates in Europe for a long time. We now need to act to ensure NHS breast cancer outcomes continue to improve and reach the Government’s ambition of being among the best in Europe in the long-term.

In particular, these predictions demonstrate the major impact that our world-class breast screening programme is having in detecting cancers earlier and giving NHS patients the best chance of survival. We must continue to invest in the screening programme, both to find ways to encourage more women to attend and to recruit and train new experts to ensure its future amid significant workforce pressures.

Thanks to earlier detection through screening, a focus on faster diagnosis and significant improvements in treatment and care, it’s fantastic that more UK women are surviving breast cancer than before. But thousands of others diagnosed with metastatic or triple negative breast cancer remain in desperate need of new options and new hope. We urgently need to prevent more cases and to understand why breast cancer spreads and how to treat it when it does. This journey from cell discoveries in the lab to patient benefit takes significant time and funding, and we need to do everything we can to speed this progress up. We need to act now.

On the suggestion that a reduction in HRT use could, alongside improvements across the entire breast cancer pathway, be a factor in the improving mortality rates, Baroness Morgan added:

It’s interesting that the authors suggest a decline in HRT use in the UK could be a possible reason for breast cancer mortality rates improving, but at most this will be a small contributing factor.

While taking HRT is known to increase the risk of breast cancer, it is a really personal decision for women, which is why it’s so important everyone fully understands the benefits and risks and discusses them with their GP. On balance, some women will feel HRT to be a necessity – but in order to minimise the risk of breast cancer during treatment, it is recommended that the lowest effective dose is used for the shortest possible time.