How does UK cancer treatment measure up to other countries?

Patients in the UK also faced long waits for treatment, although this varied depending on where they live.  

The average time to start chemotherapy in the study period was shortest in England (48 days) and longest in Scotland (65 days). Northern Ireland had the shortest average time to start radiotherapy (53 days). Wales (81 days) and Scotland (79 days) had the longest. 

“This study builds on over a decade of ICBP research into how cancer diagnosis and care varies internationally,” says Professor Georgios Lyratzopoulos, lead researcher from University College London.  

“We already know that the cancer survival in the UK has fallen behind countries like Australia and Canada, and this analysis of two key cancer treatments highlights one of the likely reasons.  

“With cancer cases projected to rise in the UK, the NHS must be equipped to deliver the best care for patients. The cancer treatment landscape is changing at pace, but capacity issues and system pressures mean that not all patients can feel the benefit of specialist cancer treatments.   

“To improve the UK’s cancer outcomes, we need to continue to investigate what is driving international variation in treatment – better data collection is key to this.” 

What do we do about it? 

Although not every patient will require them, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are key cancer treatments. It’s estimated around 4 in 10 people with cancer in the UK should receive radiotherapy as part of their care. 

While some cancer patients need time to prepare for treatment, waiting too long can   exacerbate their stress and anxiety levels, and for some patients mean their cancer can keep growing. 

But if we’re to address these differences in treatment use between countries, we need to understand what’s causing them. 

For example, concerning delays to begin treatment in the UK are partly a result of the UK Government’s lack of long-term planning on cancer in recent decades. Workforce and capacity pressures across the UK health system, a result of the lack of long-term planning, are another barrier to delivering world-class treatment for patients.   

Workforce will be one of the research themes covered by the next phase of the ICBP’s research, with the partnership hoping to discover how the best performing jurisdictions are mitigating this issue.  

However, the UK’s urgent crisis in cancer care could be turned around with a long-term plan to deliver the investment and reform needed in the NHS.  

Longer, better lives

Cancer Research UK’s manifesto, ‘Longer, better lives’ is calling on the UK Government to dramatically improve cancer survival in the UK.  

A key part of this is taking a strategic approach to addressing treatment variation. If implemented, the manifesto’s policies could help to prevent 20,000 cancer deaths every year by 2040.    

In addition, we’re calling for a strategic approach to addressing treatment variation. Better data collection and investment in clinical audit and quality improvement would help us understand and tackle why access to timely, quality treatment differs.    

With cancer cases projected to rise in the UK, demand for treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy will substantially increase. And a wider range of people, including older people with more complex healthcare needs, are likely to require cancer treatment.   

“The UK should be striving for world-leading outcomes,” says Michelle Mitchell, our chief executive.  

“All cancer patients, no matter where they live, deserve to receive the highest quality care. But this research shows that UK patients are treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy less often than comparable countries.  

“When it comes to treating cancer, timing really matters. Behind these statistics are people waiting anxiously to begin treatment that is key to boosting their chances of survival.   

“We can learn a great deal from other countries who have stepped up and substantially improved cancer services. With a general election on the horizon, the UK Government has a real opportunity to buck the trends we see in this research and do better for people affected by cancer.” 


* ICBP SURVMARK-2 data, Age-standardised 5-year net survival, both sexes, age 15-99, colon cancer, 2010-2014. 

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