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Javid’s war on cancer can’t leave people behind

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK
by Michelle Mitchell | Opinion

4 February 2022

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Michelle Mitchell chief executive Cancer Research UK
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK

A ‘war on cancer’ has been launched, with renewed ambition from Health Secretary Sajid Javid.  He’s right – we shouldn’t be satisfied as a country with the cancer patients’ current care. Far too many lives are shortened by the disease. Progress was slow before the pandemic, but now we risk it stalling altogether – or worse still, going backwards.

We’ve had plans before: visions, ambitions and promises of world-leading cancer outcomes. What we need now is leadership, commitment and competence. Addressing cancer inequalities and cancer prevention must be central to the plan.

Where we live should never affect our chance of dying from cancer. Tragically, right now, it does.

Children from the most deprived areas of England are up to twice as likely to be obese than children from the least deprived areas. Obese children are five times as likely to be obese adults, who run a higher risk of developing cancer.

I am dismayed that the richest parts of the country are projected to be smoke free by 2025 but the poorest won’t reach this target until the mid-2040s.The Secretary of State’s ‘war on cancer’ must tackle this. We need to level up on cancer. And we need to level with ourselves. Why aren’t we progressing as quickly as other countries on the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and survival of cancer?

Sajid’s call for evidence is welcome as his ambition, but the Government will be judged on deeds not words.

The doubling of cancer survival in the last 40 years is in large part due to new discoveries in cancer research. Sustained investment in cancer research must be central to any plan.

So too must be a commitment to tackle unacceptable variation in cancer care across England. People from poorer areas in England are 50% more likely to be diagnosed through emergency routes like A&E than people from the richest areas, rather than being diagnosed through primary care. When it comes to cancer care, if you live in the worst-performing regions in England you’re more than twice as likely as patients in the best-performing regions to wait longer than two months for treatment, even if you’ve had an urgent referral for suspected cancer.

But these problems are not new – services have been understaffed and underfunded for too long. Despite the tireless efforts of NHS staff, we’re seeing the effects of these pressures on patient experience. Last month some of the worst performance times for cancer tests and treatments were recorded. The pandemic has only worsened these problems and likely cancer inequalities.

The hard truth is that we are nowhere near world class cancer outcomes and as a country we need to seriously up our game. We’re now not making progress fast enough and we face the real risk that hard won progress in cancer survival could reverse.

Sajid’s call for evidence is welcome as his ambition, but the Government will be judged on deeds not words.

The rhetoric of ‘war’ is understandably not favoured by many affected by cancer. But if the Secretary of State’s ‘war on cancer’ means faster diagnosis, better treatment and a better future for the millions of families affected by cancer each year? Then, we’re all in.