Prime Minister Theresa May

Prime Minister Theresa May Credit: Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Today, the Prime Minister set out an important ambition to improve cancer survival as part of the Government’s NHS 10-year plans, which are currently being drafted.

She wants to see 3 in 4 patients diagnosed at an early stage in the next decade. This is a huge commitment, and one we strongly support.

Early diagnosis means patients are more likely to get treatment that has the best chance of curing them. And because of this, earlier diagnosis forms a key part of tackling poor survival across the UK.

For the Prime Minister to make cancer one of the focuses of her speech at the Conservative Party conference, and give a timeframe for when they will achieve their ambition, is extremely encouraging.

But while ambition is good, it must be backed up with action to achieve it. And the scale of the challenge is massive.

What’s the ambition?

The Prime Minister said: “The key to boosting your chance of surviving cancer is early diagnosis. Five-year survival rates for bowel cancer are over 90% if caught early, but less than 10% if diagnosed late.

“We will increase the early detection rate from one-in-two today, to three-in-four by 2028.”

This, she says, will bring about a “step-change” in how the UK diagnoses cancer. “It will mean that by 2028, 55,000 more people will be alive five years after their diagnosis compared to today,” she added.

Why is it important?

UK cancer survival continues to lag behind the world’s best. Only in breast cancer are we starting to catch up. And while survival has been improving in the UK, our estimates show that as a nation we need to at least double the rate of progress over the next 10 years to match those world leading countries.

A major reason for this is that the UK tends to diagnose more patients at stage 3 and 4, where curative treatment options are limited, and survival prospects are poorer. Diagnosing more patients at an early stage is therefore critical – and as a result forms the basis of Theresa May’s ambitions.

But the number of people getting cancer is going up – by 2035 over 500,000 people across the UK will be diagnosed with cancer each year, that’s about 1 person every minute. So, the scale of the challenge is significant.

What will it take to achieve this ambition?

Over the last month, organisations have been sending their thoughts to the Government about what should be a priority for the future of the NHS in England – Cancer Research UK included.

We believe the 10-year plan provides a huge opportunity to reset Government’s ambitions for improving cancer survival. And to do this, we want the NHS to refocus efforts on preventing more cancers and diagnosing the rest at the earliest possible stage.

In her speech, Theresa May mentioned a few things she believes will help achieve her ambition. First, she restated plans to lower “the age at which we screen for bowel cancer from 60 to 50”. This will be accompanied by investment “in the very latest scanners and building more Rapid Diagnostic Centres – one stop-shops that help people get treatment quicker”.

Making these changes will be positive and matches some of what we have set out in our priorities for the NHS. But achieving 3 in 4 patients getting an early diagnosis will need much more.

Reaching this ambition will rely on having enough NHS staff to make it happen. More screening tests, newer machinery and more complex diagnostic centres all need people to run them. And the fact that the NHS is already short on diagnostic staff, and that this must be addressed urgently, is something that other organisations involved in improving cancer services wholeheartedly agree with.

As we’ve blogged about before, 1 in 10 posts for diagnostic NHS staff are vacant and we’re campaigning for workforce shortages to be addressed. Plugging these gaps, and planning for the right number of staff for the future, will be crucial to achieving earlier diagnosis for all.

We also need doctors to send more people with suspicious symptoms for testing, and of course we need more research to further improve the ways we detect cancer.

With the number of patients being diagnosed with cancer increasing, and survival lagging behind other countries, we need an NHS that’s staffed not just to meet current demand, but to transform services to give all patients the best prospects.

This ambition is a fantastic start, the hard work in making it happen is the challenge ahead. And it should start with fixing staff shortages.

Emlyn Samuel is head of policy development at Cancer Research UK

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