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This election must be a turning point for cancer

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

18 June 2024

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Big Ben and Westminster


As parties launch their manifestos ahead of the general election next month, all political leaders would do well to heed last week’s data from NHS England that shows cancer patients continue to face longer waits for their treatment than they should. 

Our health service in England aims to have 85% of cancer patients begin treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral, but the last time this target was met was as far back as 2015. Our analysis shows that since the target was last hit, over 380,000 patients have had to wait longer than they should to receive vital treatment for their cancer. 

That represents an untold amount of suffering, as cancer patients and their families wait anxiously for their appointment – knowing that the earlier they’re treated, the better their outcome might be. 

Improving cancer survival should be a challenge that is put front and centre of this election. A staggering 2.2m people across the UK are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in the next parliament alone, piling further pressure on an already overstretched NHS. 

People want to see real progress. According to Ipsos MORI, the NHS, hospitals and healthcare, alongside the economy, are high on the agenda. Political parties would be wise to listen to this – and ensure cancer is a top priority. 

Introducing measures to tackle cancer would help both our NHS and the economy. Take smoking for example – by far the biggest cause of cancer in the UK. In 2022, the estimated gross cost of smoking to public finances was £20.6bn in the UK.   

Of this, £2.2 billion of costs fell on the NHS, £1.3 billion fell on the social care system, and £17 billion was lost from a reduction in taxes and increased benefit payments, arising from productivity costs, including from tobacco-related lost earnings, unemployment, and premature death.

An incoming government must, as a matter of priority, immediately reintroduce the age of sale legislation in the first King’s speech of the year. 

But to make consistent, sustained progress against cancer and tackle waiting lists, we need a comprehensive, long-term strategy covering all elements of the cancer journey – including research, prevention, diagnosis and treatment.   

The incoming UK Government must commit to a cancer-specific workforce plan and invest in more staff and equipment for our health service, alongside reform to cancer services. 

We know that government action can save lives. We’ve calculated that if the next government implements a long-term, fully funded cancer plan for England, 34,000 deaths from cancer could be avoided within a decade of the election.  

That is why Cancer Research UK is calling for all political parties to make this general election a turning point for cancer. It represents an opportunity for party leaders to commit to improving cancer survival. The health and happiness of our nation depends on it, and I urge them to grasp it.  

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