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A conference to keep cancer on the political agenda

by Jamie White | Analysis

11 December 2014

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Delegates assemble for this year's conference

The run up to Christmas is turning out to be a busy time for cancer and medical research policy. After science and the NHS took key billing at the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement last week the announcements continued at this week’s annual Britain Against Cancer Conference (BAC).

The conference is hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer (made up of a group of MPs from different parties) and is one of the largest of its kind in the UK. The gathering brings together charities, NHS professionals, policy experts, politicians and patients to discuss how best to keep cancer on the agenda.

Speakers this year included the Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP and his Labour Shadow, Andy Burnham MP – as well as the new Chief Executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, and the National Clinical Director for Cancer for NHS England, Sean Duffy.

With less than six months until the General Election, this year’s conference was packed full of early Christmas presents for the sector with plenty of political announcements and pledges.

Here’s an overview of what we heard and who’s promised what.

Putting radiotherapy and surgery on an equal footing

We know that radiotherapy is a cost-effective and cutting-edge treatment that can help cure the disease. But radiotherapy treatments are becoming ever more sophisticated, and it’s important that suitable patients can receive the latest treatments available once they have been proven effective.


Radiotherapy treatments are becoming ever more sophisticated

Andy Burnham, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, used the conference to set out a series of measures that Labour would implement if they win next May. His flagship policy was a pledge to set up a new £330 million fund for all types of cancer treatment – including the latest forms of radiotherapy, surgery and drugs, something that he claimed would help them reach their goal of, “making the NHS the best health service in the world for the treatment of cancer.”

The fund will start in April 2016, at the same time that funding for the current Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF) expires and cancer experts will be consulted on how this money is allocated. It will also be more closely aligned to NICE and commissioning processes. Any patient currently receiving treatment from a drug on the CDF at the time of switchover would still be offered that drug.

Burnham also outlined a plan to tackle issues of access to treatments among older patients. You can read about a recent report we published on this here. Labour has said they would like us to lead this work in collaboration with the Royal College of Surgeons, to make sure that older patients can receive the treatments that they need.

Speaking on behalf of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government, Jeremy Hunt outlined that, during the last four years of this Parliament, around one million patients have been treated for cancer, with numbers increasing by 15 per cent last year compared with 2010. He pointed to better outcomes in one year survival – up from 59.2 per cent for patients diagnosed in 1996 to 68.2 per cent in 2011. He championed our SABR radiotherapy trials, stressing the Government’s support for them, and claimed that the UK has some of the best cancer research in the world.

The Cancer Drugs Fund was also raised by Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, in his address. He stressed the need to ensure “health bangs for cancer investment bucks” and that NHS England remain committed to better managing the current budget, which may mean some drugs coming off the list. If you want to find out more about what we think about the CDF then you can read it here on the blog.

Spotting cancer earlier

A patient with a nurse

Nearly half of cancers in England are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat successfully.

Although treatment dominated the announcements, early diagnosis wasn’t neglected either. We know that nearly half of cancers in England are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat successfully. Diagnosing cancer at its earliest stages is crucial to give patients the best chance of survival. Because of that, screening uptake is crucial and you can read about why we want to increase uptake of bowel screening, subject to patients having access to all the information they need, here.

Andy Burnham said that too many young people were leaving education without a good understanding of the basics of cancer and how to look out for the warning signs. He announced that Labour would look to expand the current cancer education programme in schools, run by the Teenage Cancer Trust, to cover all schools in England (currently reaches about 500 schools.)

Alongside this, he said that Labour would explore whether to expand the cancer screening programme and would ask for recommendations from the National Screening Committee on the evidence for lung and ovarian cancer screening. This would be alongside a commitment to a full roll-out of the bowel screening programme by 2016.  He also reiterated Labour’s commitment to a one week turnaround for cancer tests and results for patients.

Jeremy Hunt also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to early diagnosis, and highlighted the increased number of diagnostic tests taking place in 2013-14 compared to 2009-10.

Standard packs and cancer prevention

Plain, standardised cigarette pack

We’ve been fiercely campaigning for standardised cigarette packs

Earlier this month it was the two-year anniversary of the introduction of standard packs in Australia. We are calling upon the Government to introduce standard packs across the UK without delay.

Public consultation on standard packs in the UK began in April 2012, and Parliament overwhelmingly backed the measure at the end of 2013. Since then there has been an independent review by paediatric expert Sir Cyril Chantler which found that standard packs would ‘very likely have a positive impact on public health.’

A consultation on the regulations for standardised packs is now being reviewed by the Government and Parliament will need to vote again ahead of the General Election next May before the new packs can be introduced.

Standard packs featured in all the major speeches at BAC. Simon Stevens emphasised the importance of cancer prevention and said that progress should be made on standardised packaging for tobacco products. Jeremy Hunt echoed these comments. Andy Burnham left no chance for doubt by declaring that standard packs would be introduced without delay as part of Labour’s cancer manifesto.

Cancer plans and strategies

Many of these announcements came as part of larger cancer plans and strategies. Simon Stevens outlined NHS England’s plan to establish a cancer programme to develop a new cancer strategy for England – building on the welcome start made with the NHS Five Year Forward View.

Jeremy Hunt reminded us that the current strategy for England sets out to save an extra 5000 lives a year by 2014-15. He announced that the Government expects that up to 17,000 extra patients a year will survive cancer by then compared to the average between 2006 and 2010. He outlined how the Government would take forward the NHS Five Year Review and re-emphasised the £3.1 billion investment for the NHS announced at the Autumn Statement by the Chancellor last week.

Labour’s announcements around the cancer treatments fund and early diagnosis formed a larger package of measures that he said they will publish as a cancer strategy within six months of the election.

How can you help keep these issues on the agenda?

Cancer matters to all of us. So ahead of the General Election in May, we can all join the fight to beat cancer sooner.

Find out more about our campaign to Cross Cancer Out and how you can help us get cancer high on the political agenda now and in the next Parliament.

Jamie White is a public affairs manager at Cancer Research UK