Why are cancer deaths lower? Could it be NHS Scotland just keeps getting better?

The Herald’s Health Correspondent has just notices a trend and an anomaly – cancer deaths falling despite less treatment during the pandemic – which TuS reported on the first signs of two years ago.

Amid the current media feeding frenzy to topple another Scottish Health Secretary with supposed malpractice in NHS Tayside’s oncology department also two years ago, this story is fascinating.

From the Herald today:

Here’s what we wrote in October 2022:

Throughout 2020 and into 2021, Scottish Labour tastelessly weaponised the inevitable reductions in cancer treatment, especially surgery, to protect vulnerable patients from a deadly virus. The ‘tsunami of cancer deaths‘ featured in multiple headlines as Scottish Labour flaunted their faux compassion.

Some time ago, I wondered when this wave might appear in the NRS mortality data. It seemed not to but my attempts to get an answer from medics and researchers were met with silence. I guess they feared being associated with the notion that some, at least, cancer surgery or other treatment is not saving lives. The most recent of my posts on this is at the foot of this report.

Today, however, we read from Public Health Scotland, this stunning comment:

The continuing decrease in cancer mortality rates is consistent with long-term trends. Therefore, it appears that the pandemic did not adversely impact cancer mortality rates in 2021.https://www.publichealthscotland.scot/publications/cancer-mortality/cancer-mortality-in-scotland-annual-update-to-2021/

For the stat geeks, this research properly compares two 4-year blocks of data, 2016-2020 and 2017-2021, and finds a significant fall in mortality for all cancers for all 5 deprivation levels.

There has clearly been no tsunami of cancer deaths despite significant reductions in treatment. Some sacred cows should be at least examined?

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2 thoughts on “Why are cancer deaths lower? Could it be NHS Scotland just keeps getting better?

  1. This report in the Herald brings two things to mind:

    Firstly, the fact that the data for Scotland are at variance with that of the UK is taken as evidence that something must be wrong with the Scottish data. (The corollary is that if data for Scotland is worse than that for the rest of the UK this is unambiguous proof that Scotland is irredeemably bad.

    Secondly, Ms McArdle quotes a medic working in the field of oncology, i.e. someone who makes a living out of people developing cancers. Now, I do not wish to scorn the work such people have done over recent decades in improving significantly the quality of life for many sufferers. However, improvements in survival rates can imply to some politicians and economists that investment in cancer research could be reduced. And for those in research (in all fields – sciences, engineering, arts, etc) the scrabbling for funds is an ever-present fact of life and, one of the effective ways of getting funding is via a variation on Project Fear.

    This latter reminds of a regular feature on BBC Scotland Radio News in the 1960s featuring the wonderful Jamieson Clark. He used to interview a farmer about the forthcoming harvest and the dour, gloomy gentleman always presented a dire picture – “therrs no enuff rain, the crops ur dying”. Then there would be a period of rain, but the farmer would say, “If it goes on like this, the crops is gonnae rot. Whit we need is sunshine.” There would then be a period of warm weather, but the horny handed pessimist would say, “A this sunshine is making the plants wilt.” And so it would go on – every silver lining had a cloud attached.

    Liked by 1 person

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