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  • Policy & Insight

Optimistic targets aren’t enough – this is what we need to see to transform cancer survival

by Steve Brine MP | Opinion

19 July 2023

2 comments 2 comments

A clinician touching the arm of a patient in hospital

Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee Steve Brine MP, on the steps we need to take to become world-leading when it comes to cancer. The MP is among the political leaders, policymakers, cancer experts, researchers and cancer patients helping to inform our Manifesto for Cancer Research and Care, which will be published later this year.


To be told that you or someone you love has cancer is dreadful news.

Today, one in every two people in this country can expect to be told they have cancer at some point in their lives.

For some, that means a terminal diagnosis. But we can look forward to a time when cancer, with the suffering and loss that is so bound up with that word, will lose some of its power to create fear.

That goal can only be reached with a clear-sighted approach and the resources, dedication and hard work of researchers and trained professionals.

Optimistic targets aren’t enough. Four years ago, the NHS Long Term Plan set a new ambition that by 2028 the proportion of cancers diagnosed at stages 1 and 2 would rise from around half to three-quarters of cancer patients.

The Expert Panel that provides independent evaluation to the Health and Social Care committee rated the Government’s progress on this pledge to be “requires improvement”.

Our report on cancer services (published in April 2022) had a similar message for ministers – the Government was off track to meet its goal; a goal that we know offers the single most effective way to improve cancer survival.

Reducing the number of people waiting longer than 62-days to begin treatment for cancer is crucial.

It was very disappointing to be told by NHS England that its target to reduce numbers to pre-pandemic levels by March this year was not expected to be met until March 2024.

For those waiting, that means counting the days then the weeks and the months.

So where does the solution lie to getting back on track? Innovation is at the core of the ambitions on cancer in the NHS Long Term Plan.

The NHS Cancer Programme acknowledges that achieving them will rely on harnessing the latest technology and newest approaches to cancer diagnosis, as and when they are discovered.

To back up its intention, the NHS runs an annual Innovation Open Call competition to identify and grow the most promising innovations.

Our committee recognises the value and potential of this approach. We’re currently holding an evidence-based inquiry, Future cancer, to identify innovations with the greatest potential to transform cancer diagnosis and treatment in the short, medium and long term.

Our focus is on how those innovations can be transitioned into frontline clinical settings and what we can learn here from international examples of best practice.

Members of this committee will be making recommendations to Government that build on the science to enable the next crucial step – to turn research into new technologies and treatments.

But so much more can be done to limit the number of people who will go on to develop cancer.

The current consensus is that around 40% of cancers are preventable – that’s around 135,000 cases in the UK every year.

An obvious target is reducing smoking – a risk factor in so many cancers, including lung, mouth, throat, stomach and liver. Cancer prevention is a key workstream in our major inquiry on preventing ill-health.

I believe that the future sustainability of the NHS rests on us getting prevention right.

However, this Committee’s case to Government on cancer was that neither earlier diagnosis, nor prompt treatment, would be possible without tackling a crisis in its workforce.

The NHS was estimated, on a full-time equivalent basis, to be short of 189 clinical oncologists, 390 consultant pathologists and 1,939 radiologists, and likely to be short of 3,371 specialist cancer nurses by 2030.

We called for a long-term and short-term plan to fix it. It is welcome to see many of the Committee’s recommendations reflected in NHS England’s Long Term Workforce plan.

This puts an emphasis on cancer, particularly faster diagnosis – with more medical students expected to complete their training in cancer services to tackle shortages.

If we are to truly transform cancer care, alongside a strengthened workforce, we need to quickly translate innovative science into new treatments – while helping prevent people getting the disease in the first place.

Only then can we strive towards a future where cancer loses its power to create fear.

    Comments

  • Alan Moss
    20 July 2023

    Steve Brine MP is a committed supporter of improvements in cancer care, and much of what he says is absolutely true. Our country’s performance at diagnosing and treating cancer is not what it should be. There are substantial problems within the NHS that need to be addressed, and probably it will not be possible to start on improving things until the current strikes are settled. It is not just about increasing the staff levels and paying them the same as Australia does; that is not affordable at the moment anyway. We do need strategic drive from the top of the NHS to direct research, implement it quickly at a clinical level, and improve productivity, especially the ways in which different specialities interact with each other. Early diagnosis should be more cost effective than not treating cancers until they have reached a late stage. There is enormous public goodwill towards the NHS, and much taxpayer money devoted to it as well. Follow up the long term staff plan with a productivity plan to include more scanners and early diagnostic equipment available from primary care.

  • Brenda W Webb
    19 July 2023

    Preventable most of the time when cancers are not hereditary if we clean up environments our ancestors messed up such as teaching us to smoke, ingest poisons like booze and so on.

    Comments

  • Alan Moss
    20 July 2023

    Steve Brine MP is a committed supporter of improvements in cancer care, and much of what he says is absolutely true. Our country’s performance at diagnosing and treating cancer is not what it should be. There are substantial problems within the NHS that need to be addressed, and probably it will not be possible to start on improving things until the current strikes are settled. It is not just about increasing the staff levels and paying them the same as Australia does; that is not affordable at the moment anyway. We do need strategic drive from the top of the NHS to direct research, implement it quickly at a clinical level, and improve productivity, especially the ways in which different specialities interact with each other. Early diagnosis should be more cost effective than not treating cancers until they have reached a late stage. There is enormous public goodwill towards the NHS, and much taxpayer money devoted to it as well. Follow up the long term staff plan with a productivity plan to include more scanners and early diagnostic equipment available from primary care.

  • Brenda W Webb
    19 July 2023

    Preventable most of the time when cancers are not hereditary if we clean up environments our ancestors messed up such as teaching us to smoke, ingest poisons like booze and so on.