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Canada's cancer survival rate speaks well of our health care system Add to ...

Quell the panic over health care. Canada's cancer-survival rates are good by international standards, according to a comparison of six countries, from 1995 to 2007, published in The Lancet. Canadian women diagnosed with breast cancer after 65 were 20 per cent more likely to survive than women in the United Kingdom. And since cancer-survival rates are a measure of a health system's overall effectiveness, it means medicare is doing something all right, after all.

One-year and five-year survival rates in Canada were in the top group (with Sweden and Australia) for the four major cancers studied - breast, ovarian, lung and colorectal. Norway was a middling performer, and Denmark, England, Northern Ireland and Wales were in the low group. The six countries were chosen because they are comparably wealthy, provide universal access to care, and keep good cancer data. (A footnote: Canadian data came from just four provinces, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, representing 65 per cent of all cancer cases in the country.)

Perhaps the best news of all is that in all six countries, cancer-survival rates improved in all of the four types of cancer studied. "There were days in the past when people felt it wasn't possible to move that forward unless there was an individual breakthrough drug," says Heather Bryant, vice-president of the Canadian Partnership against Cancer, a federally funded non-profit group that shares information among provinces. "But we know now that's not the case. It's really about, with the evidence you have, making sure it's applied as fully as you can."

Late diagnosis in the U.K. and Denmark is singled out as a problem in The Lancet paper, written by an international team of researchers that included Dr. Bryant. The study offers little sense of what Canada is doing right; that will have to wait for future studies. She said, however, that Canada is trying to improve cancer screening so cancers can be spotted, and treated, earlier. It is also trying to gather data across the country on what stages cancer is being diagnosed at.

The question is what to do with the good news. It should not distract us from the need for continual innovation. And yet. . . after years of 7-per-cent annual growth in public-health spending, it may be time to turn our focus (and our limited dollars) to another issue.

The education system. At all levels, and for many purposes, not least of them health, well-being and the economy.

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