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New plan unveiled to tackle Scotland’s cancer crisis

Picture of Dr Sorcha Hume standing in front of a cancer research uk logo
by Sorcha Hume | Opinion

16 June 2023

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The Scottish Flag flying near Loch Ness

Scotland’s new cancer strategy was launched yesterday. Here, Dr Sorcha Hume, Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Scotland, describes how it has the potential to transform a cancer system that’s letting patients down. 

The stark statistic that one in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime makes the Scottish Government’s new 10-year cancer strategy absolutely critical to all our futures.

The need to transform cancer services in Scotland has never been more clear. Cancer Research UK predicts that the number of people diagnosed with cancer in Scotland will rise by a quarter by 2040, taking the number of new cases to more than 42,000 for the first time, putting even more strain on an NHS under pressure.

The latest figures show the worst cancer waiting times for Scotland on record. From October to December 2022, more than one in four patients were waiting too long to start treatment. Cancer waiting times are a good barometer for how the NHS is working, so this shows that more needs to be done to ensure we diagnose cancer earlier, when it’s more treatable.

Cancer strategies may not sound exciting, but they provide a vital roadmap for change and are essential to improving survival. International research shows that countries with properly funded plans are more likely to achieve better cancer outcomes.

So, what’s the verdict on the government’s new cancer strategy?

Firstly, the good news is that it has all the right ingredients for being an effective plan for people in Scotland. If fully funded and implemented, the plan will help improve the way we diagnose, treat and care for cancer patients in this country.

Key to the plan’s success will be securing the right amount of financial investment in cancer services themselves. This plan now needs to be put into action with its new measures implemented at pace.

Having trained in medicine in my earlier career, I saw first-hand how anxiety-inducing it is for patients to wait for cancer results and treatment. I also witnessed how cancer services are desperately over-stretched – due to years of underinvestment in workforce and specialist equipment.

People in Scotland urgently need more specialist medical staff to ensure they are diagnosed quickly as early diagnosis followed by swift treatment can make the vital difference between a good and bad outcome.

It takes 15 years to train an oncologist, pathologist, radiologist or surgeon and international comparisons show that the countries with the biggest improvements in cancer survival, like Denmark, are those with long-term, adequately funded cancer plans.

It’s clear there is a UK-wide workforce problem and there is no easy fix, but the Scottish Government’s plan to retain, recruit and train more staff will certainly help.

Dr Sorcha Hume
Dr Sorcha Hume is Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Scotland

Finally, the plan needs to tackle health inequalities – helping to bring about equal access to cancer services and testing opportunities, as well as education on how they can take action to reduce their own risk of developing cancer.

Cancer Research UK published a landmark report last year that revealed around 4,900 extra cancer cases a year are linked to deprivation in Scotland. It’s not right that those who live in more deprived areas are not only more at risk of getting cancer but are also more likely to die from their disease.

It’s encouraging to see an overarching priority to reduce health inequalities across all ten ambitions laid out in the strategy. Indeed, the strategic aim of the plan is to “improve cancer survival and provide excellent, equitable accessible care, no matter where a person lives.”

We need the Scottish Government to drive forward bold action to stop this unacceptable variation in our society. And we look forward to working with them to achieve Cancer Research UK’s goal that beating cancer means beating cancer for everyone.

This new plan aims to prevent cancer, improve early diagnosis and provide patients with the treatment they need. Getting its execution is right could take Scotland from being world-lagging to world-leading on cancer survival, something that would benefit all of us.