Dr Richard McNally has found that the risk of dying early from a diagnosis of osteosarcoma is greater for patients who live in areas with higher unemployment.

The study, funded by the Bone Cancer Research Trust, also found that people who lived in a more remote rural areas were at higher risk of dying within 12 months of diagnosis, for both osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma.

Unlike more common cancers, these primary bone cancers affect both children and adults. Twelve people are diagnosed every week in the UK and Ireland. Survival rates for osteosarcoma haven’t improved in 30 years.

Study lead, Dr Richard McNally at the Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, said:

My interest in this area came from hearing first-hand from bone cancer patients at the Bone Cancer Research Trust’s annual conference and seeing how many suffered delays in diagnosis and referral to specialist centres. It made me realise there were issues which needed to be explored.

The association we’ve found between socio-economic factors and early mortality in osteosarcoma may be due to delays in diagnosis, how easily people can access care and how closely patients follow their treatment programme. But this means there is scope for improvement in this terrible disease, if we can identify what’s behind this disparity in survival and take steps to address it.

The Bone Cancer Research Trust has provided an opportunity to pursue research on these cancers and we want to identify how we can make things better for current and future patients and their families. Without the Bone Cancer Research Trust and their supporters this work wouldn’t have been possible.

The research, published in Cancer Epidemiology, used the largest ever data set of all cases of osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma in patients aged 0-49 years, diagnosed in Great Britain during 1985-2008. The study analysed 2432 osteosarcoma cases and 1711 Ewing sarcoma cases.

Zoe, Head of Research and Information at the Bone Cancer Research Trust said:

Findings from the research will help shape the charity’s strategy. It will influence how we engage with our communities in more rural and higher unemployment areas to make them aware of the symptoms of primary bone cancer and to encourage them to speak with their GPs. We will also reach out to medical professionals to ensure they have access to our online learning resources and the red flag symptoms. We hope that this will allow for earlier diagnosis and improve outcomes for these patients.

Dr McNally aims to conduct further research exploring the pathways from symptoms to diagnosis right through to follow up on treatment. Areas to be explored include accessibility to medical centres, patient-led activity such as follow up appointments, cost implications of travelling to see a GP, access to awareness information and creating the opportunities for communities to engage. He said:

We’d like to pull together different data sets on primary and secondary care to look at the patterns in the diagnosis and treatment pathways and see if there are areas where improvements could be made. We’d then like to work with healthcare professions to look at strategies for implementation of new methods for improving diagnosis or treatment, which could change outcomes.

Dr McNally has now secured funding from further sources in order to continue this research.