Radiotherapy cures more patients than cancer drugs

Radiotherapy, the ‘forgotten hero’ of cancer treatment

David Cameron announced a new ‘radiotherapy innovation fund’ this week. He’s making £15million available to the NHS in England so that by April 2013, more cancer patients can benefit from advanced radiotherapy like intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT).

The money has become available because the Government’s Cancer Drugs Fund – set up to make new cancer drugs available to patients who need them – is under budget.

So between now and April 2013, radiotherapy centres in England will be able to bid for this money to boost their services. The Prime Minister also guaranteed that from April all patients in England will always be able to access the radiotherapy treatments that their doctors think they need, including advanced radiotherapy such as IMRT or stereotactic radiosurgery, regardless of where they live.

This is fantastic news, for several reasons.

Most importantly, radiotherapy helps cure cancer. It’s second to surgery in its success in curing the disease, and four in ten of those who beat cancer have had some sort of radiotherapy as part of their treatment.

While chemotherapy and new kinds of targeted cancer drugs are often featured in the media, radiotherapy has frequently been the forgotten hero of cancer treatment. The Government’s announcement is therefore welcome and gives overdue recognition that radiotherapy really is a cutting-edge treatment, and that suitable patients need the most advanced types of radiotherapy. These treatments deliver radiotherapy in a more targeted way, making it more effective and often leaving the patient with fewer side effects.

Radiotherapy is cost-effective compared with some of the newer, expensive cancer drugs, so investment that means the NHS can give more targeted radiotherapy is a very sensible use of money in these austere times.

But this commitment is also significant because it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work by Cancer Research UK and others, who have been working to ensure that radiotherapy gets the recognition and support it deserves.

When we published our first policy report on radiotherapy in 2009 we were shocked to find that, despite the success radiotherapy can have in curing cancer, fewer people were getting radiotherapy in the UK than in other parts of the world.

We also found that newer radiotherapy treatments weren’t being introduced across the NHS as quickly as they should be. This was partly due to staff shortages, but also because the way that radiotherapy was paid for in the NHS meant that there was no incentive to do this. A recurring message was that radiotherapy was falling behind because people weren’t aware of how important it was.

It simply wasn’t enough of a priority within the NHS or within the corridors of power.

For the past three years we’ve been working to address this. Alongside our own work to raise awareness with politicians, we helped set up the National Radiotherapy Awareness Initiative (NRAI). We designated 2011 the ‘Year of Radiotherapy’, along with the Department of Health and the professional bodies who represent the doctors, radiographers and physicists working in radiotherapy, who make up the rest of the NRAI. We’ve looked for every opportunity to get as many people as excited about radiotherapy as we are. And the NRAI has been out in the NHS giving radiotherapy managers the confidence and tools to talk publicly about radiotherapy too.

But this announcement is also thanks to you – all 36,000 of you who signed up to our Voice for Radiotherapy campaign, which asked specifically for action by the Government to improve radiotherapy services. And thanks to all your MPs who wrote to the Health Minster to ask him to make sure that radiotherapy in England is up to scratch. This announcement shows that the message has been getting through.

There are details of this week’s announcement that still need to be ironed out. We must make sure the Prime Minister’s commitment is made a reality as soon as possible.

While we don’t yet know all the detail, we do know that more money for radiotherapy is excellent news for cancer patients. Be sure to check the blog in the coming weeks as more detail emerges about what this investment will mean for patients and how will it be spent.