Stage is a key predictor of cancer survival. Complete cancer staging is vital for understanding outcomes at population level and monitoring the efficacy of early diagnosis initiatives. Cancer registries usually collect details of the disease extent but staging information may be missing because a stage was never assigned to a patient or because it was not included in cancer registration records. Missing stage information introduce methodological difficulties for analysis and interpretation of results. We describe the associations between missing stage and socio-demographic and clinical characteristics of patients diagnosed with colon, lung or breast cancer in England in 2013. We assess how these associations change when completeness is high, and administrative issues are assumed to be minimal. We estimate the amount of avoidable missing stage data if high levels of completeness reached by some Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), were achieved nationally.
Individual cancer records were retrieved from the National Cancer Registration and linked to the Routes to Diagnosis and Hospital Episode Statistics datasets to obtain additional clinical information. We used multivariable beta binomial regression models to estimate the strength of the association between socio-demographic and clinical characteristics of patients and missing stage and to derive the amount of avoidable missing stage.
Multivariable modelling showed that old age was associated with missing stage irrespective of the cancer site and independent of comorbidity score, short-term mortality and patient characteristics. This remained true for patients in the CCGs with high completeness. Applying the results from these CCGs to the whole cohort showed that approximately 70% of missing stage information was potentially avoidable.
Missing stage was more frequent in older patients, including those residing in CCGs with high completeness. This disadvantage for older patients was not explained fully by the presence of comorbidity. A substantial gain in completeness could have been achieved if administrative practices were improved to the level of the highest performing areas. Reasons for missing stage information should be carefully assessed before any study, and potential distortions introduced by how missing stage is handled should be considered in order to draw the most correct inference from available statistics.