Survival from almost all cancers has improved during the last 30 years. There is debate over the reasons for the improvement. We examined trends in survival for 28 cancers from 1980 to 1996 in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, with adjustment for disease spread at diagnosis. NSW Central Cancer Registry data were used to estimate 5-year relative survival and relative excess risk of death for patients diagnosed in 1980–84, 1985–88, 1989–92 and 1993–96. Statistical significance of variation in excess deaths between periods of diagnosis was assessed using Poisson regression, with adjustment for age, sex, duration of follow-up, histology and spread of disease at diagnosis. There were statistically significant falls in excess deaths for 20 of the cancers with a 25% fall for all cancers combined. Cancers of the prostate, liver, thyroid, breast, gallbladder, body of uterus, rectum, cervix and ovary had falls of >30%. The falls varied by spread of disease; the largest being in localised and regionally spread tumours. Overall survival, when unadjusted for spread of cancer, generally fell in parallel with that in the specific categories of spread, which implies that stage migration did not contribute importantly to survival trends. While acknowledging the limitations of incomplete data on stage of cancer at diagnosis, we conclude that falls in excess deaths in NSW from 1980 to 1996 are unlikely, for many cancers, to be attributed to earlier diagnosis or stage migration; thus advances in cancer treatment have almost certainly contributed to them.
International Journal of Cancer Vol. 119, Issue 4, p. 894-900