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Cancer Epidemiol. 2012 Apr;36(2):148-52. doi: 10.1016/j.canep.2011.09.007. Epub 2011 Oct 13.

Adjusting for the proportion of cancer deaths in the general population when using relative survival: a sensitivity analysis.

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Department of Health Sciences, Centre for Biostatistics and Genetic Epidemiology, University of Leicester, UK.



Relative survival is an extensively used method in population based cancer studies as it provides a measure of survival without the need for accurate cause of death information. It gives an estimate for the probability of dying from cancer in the absence of other causes by estimating the excess mortality in the study population when compared to an external group. The external group is usually the general population within a country or state and mortality estimates are taken from national life tables that are broken down by age, sex, calendar year and, where applicable, race/ethnicity. One potential bias when using relative survival that is most often overlooked occurs when there are a high proportion of deaths due to a specific cancer in the external group.


This paper uses data from the Finnish Cancer Registry to illustrate, through the use of a simple sensitivity analysis, the impact that specific cancer deaths in the population mortality figures can have on the estimate of relative survival.


We found that when examining specific diseases such as breast cancer and colon cancer, the proportion of deaths due to these specific cancers in the general population is so small in comparison to the total mortality that they make little difference to the relative survival estimates. However, prostate cancer proved to be an exception to this. For all cancer sites combined the sensitivity analysis illustrates a major limitation for this type of analysis, particularly with the older age groups.


We recommend that, with a classification of diseases as wide as all cancer sites, relative survival should not be used without appropriate adjustment.

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