New figures show a 38% reduction in the number of breast cancer deaths in the last 20 years. Dr Caroline Dalton discusses some of the advances that may have contributed.

Tuesday 19 August 2014      Policy and campaigns blog
Death rates from breast cancer down by 38%

Twenty years ago, over 15,000 women a year died from breast cancer. New figures released by Cancer Research UK show that this figure is now just over 11,500 – a 38 percent reduction in the number of breast cancer deaths in the last 20 years. Here are some of the advances which we think have contributed.

Better detection

The NHS Breast Screening Programme began in the UK in 1988. It’s thought to be one of the major contributors to the improved death rates which have been reported this week. As with any screening method, there are concerns with over-diagnosis, but we believe that breast screening plays a vital part in preventing deaths from breast cancer. However, it’s crucial that women receive the right information about the benefits and risks of breast screening, so they can make an informed decision about whether to attend their appointment.

Better care

We’ve also seen care become more coordinated, allowing doctors with different specialisations to come together and decide on the best course of treatment for each woman.

But we know we need to do more. Last year we supported an inquiry on older people and breast cancer held by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Breast Cancer. A report was produced, setting out key recommendations to ensure that all patients diagnosed with breast cancer have access to the services, treatments and care that most benefits them, regardless of their age.

More than half of breast cancer deaths in the UK are in women over 70 and most men who develop the disease in England are over 60. Making sure the recommendations set out in the inquiry report are implemented, and that care for older people with breast cancer is of the highest standard, is hugely important if we want to see further improvements in death rates from the disease.

Better treatment

The development of effective targeted treatments like tamoxifen and Herceptin has undoubtedly contributed to the improvements in death rates from breast cancer we’ve seen over the last two decades.

We’ve also recently seen a new type of radiotherapy approved by NICE, which shows the kind of progress that’s been made in treatments. However, we have also seen several extremely promising new breast cancer drugs rejected for routine use on the NHS, most recently Kadcyla in England and Wales. So more needs to be done to make sure that all women get access to the drugs they need, when they need them.

Positive progress…but still more to do

Thanks to research we know so much more about breast cancer and how to prevent it, detect it and treat it than we did 20 years ago. But, whilst today’s figures are a hugely positive step in the right direction, they also show us the challenge we still have before us. Breast cancer still kills 1,000 women a month in the UK. There is still so much more to do.

Breakthrough is making sure positive progress continues.  Our Breakthrough Generations Study is helping us understand more about the causes of breast cancer and how to prevent it. Our scientists have developed new drugs which are in clinical trials, and through our policy and campaigning work, we are pushing hard to make sure that advances in treatment reach patients and improve outcomes.

Dr Caroline Dalton is Breakthrough Breast Cancer's Senior Policy Officer