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Sophie 

We’ve made huge strides in cancer research and care over the previous decades.  

If we go all the way back to the early 1970s, the picture was bleak with only 1 in 4 people in the UK surviving their cancer for 10 years or more. 

Since then, survival for all cancers combined has doubled. Additionally, since the mid-1980s, more than a million lives had been saved, with UK mortality rates falling by 10% in the last decade alone.  

This is because of groundbreaking research, exciting discoveries, new clinical trials, tests and treatments which have all brought us not just hope, but progress. 

We now live in a world where a vaccine – developed through decades of research, clinical trials and NHS screening programmes – is expected to prevent almost 90% of cervical cancers.  

This is an era where virtual reality labs can study tumours and unpick the toughest problems facing how we understand cancer.  

But sadly, all the gains we’ve made over the past decades are at real risk of stalling. 

The cancer crisis is urgent. Every day, people affected by cancer face anxious waits for tests and treatment, reflected in month after month of missed cancer waiting time targets – the last time they were all met in England was in 2015.  

Compared to similar countries the UK is lagging behind when it comes to improvements in cancer survival, and the challenge ahead is only set to grow – by 2040, we project that there will be over 500,000 new UK cancer cases each year. 

And for cancer research, we’ve identified a funding gap more than £1bn in the next decade, putting the UK’s world leading research at risk. 

That’s why in late 2023 Cancer Research UK embarked on an ambitious policy development programme, giving a voice to the millions of patients and thousands of researchers who are demanding for real progress in cancer research and care in the UK. 

Ahead of the next general election, the charity has published an ambitious cancer plan, called Longer, Better Lives: A Manifesto for Cancer Research and Care, and a Programme for Government, which could help the UK avoid 20,000 cancer deaths a year by 2040. 

But why is this manifesto so important, and why now?  

Well that’s why I’m here. I’m Sophie Wedekind, and over the course of the next few episodes of this new series, I’ll be speaking to some of the people involved in its development, to uncover why it’s needed, and the impact it could make.  

So, to begin our journey, I spoke to Shaun Walsh, head of public affairs and campaigns at Cancer Research UK to learn more about the key things we want the UK Government to do to improve cancer research and care, and ultimately save more lives. 

Shaun   

Almost 1 in 2 people will get cancer in their lifetime, so that’s a family in every constituency. And we know that we need to do more in this country to be able compete in the research environment and global life sciences market. So we can’t stand still. And if we do standstill, we fall further behind.   

So the manifesto is Cancer Research UK’s thinking in terms of what we need to do to dramatically improve survival in this country, what do we need to do to improve the research environment, to enhance research so we can improve outcomes for patients. 

So the reason why now is so important and most people listening to this I think will be aware that 2024 is an election year, so we know that all political parties are now developing their own manifestos. They’re thinking that they will go to electorate with in order to win their support at a general election and we want to make sure that improving cancer survival, improving the research environment is a critical part of all those political manifestos. Because research can only take us so far in beating cancer but actually we politicians to play their part as well. They have their hand on the policy levers that we know are critical to driving forward change. And now is the moment they’re listening and now is the time to provide evidence and insight of the things we need to see happening to improve that.  

Sophie 

And if you were to summarise Longer, Better Lives into key themes what would they be? 

Shaun 

Well, I guess the key headline, Sophie, is really about what do we want to achieve? You know, what is this thing for? And our overall ambition with the manifesto and associated programme for government is to help prevent 20,000 cancer deaths every year by 2040. That’s what it all adds up to. And we think achieving this would be a huge legacy that any incoming government would be proud of. And the way we’ve set this out is across 5 missions.  

So, firstly we’re looking at the first mission, which is about rebuilding the UK’s global position in research. So an example of that is we know that there is around more than £1 billion funding gap for cancer research over the next decade. So we need an incoming government to work with us and others, it’s not just about government money, it’s about how we work together to address that gap and really accelerate progress in cancer research.  

The second mission is around prevention. How do we prevent more cancer cases? So we think an incoming government in the first year of a general election should have taken action to raise the age of sale of tobacco products and start to implement measures to help people to quit smoking. So the aim of that is if we make England smoke free, for example, we’d prevent 18,200 cancer cases in England by 2040. And that’s why we’re supporting the Prime Minister’s bill, that we expect next month, to introduce raising the age of sale on tobacco products. Which is a big step forward in reducing the number of cancer cases. 

The third mission is around how we diagnose cancers earlier and reduce inequalities. We know that this is absolutely critical to diagnoses cancer early to secure the best outcomes and best treatment options. So we think there needs to be plans to reduce late-stage diagnosis, i think there’s an opportunity to transform and optimise screening programmes, particularly around issues like lung cancer. And we need to bring in further considerations about inequalities in cancer, both in terms of access to services but also the groups more likely to get cancer for lots of different reasons. And that’s all in the manifesto on how we can do that. 

The fourth mission, is how we bring tests and treatments and innovations to patients more quickly. So this really reflects the fact that we know that we must meet cancer waiting times. Any incoming government must make the commitment to meeting cancer waiting times by the end of next parliament. We also need to see how do we better resource the NHS, so we plug the gaps in the workforces, we address infrastructure and capital problems, which are hindering the services ability to respond to demand. People in the NHS are doing an amazing job, but there are too few people in there to do the job well. We need a focus planned action to recruit the necessary cancer professionals to meet the demand for diagnosis and treatment. 

And then the final mission is really how to we build a national movement to beat cancer? How do we work together? How do we make this a national drive to improve cancer outcomes in this country? So key thing that we and others across the sector have been calling for is for a government to publish a 10-year cancer strategy for England. We don’t have one at the moment. This government did actually start developing one and then that was paused. And that was disappointing because we know when we look at international evidence, countries that have a dedicated, funded, long-term cancer plan improve cancer outcomes. This needs dedicated political focus backed by long term strategy. 

So those are the five missions as I said there’s much more detail in the manifesto, in the programme for government. In the programme for government itself, it’s 200 pages plus long with lots of detail, lots of evidence. But those are the headlines we’re looking to see delivered through the manifesto work. 

Sophie 

If people listening to the podcasts are thinking, Well, what can I do? How can I make sure the next government takes up these missions? I want cancer care and research to look better in the UK, what can I do to help? 

Shaun 

Yeah, and I don’t want to, in that previous answer, I don’t want it to feel like ‘that’s a massive task’ because actually behind these missions are evidence based proven steps that can be taken, a number of which are quite straightforward. So this is something positive. It is a manifesto built on what can be done. And it’s absolutely critical, as you say, for those people listening who care about cancer services and cancer outcomes, this is your moment. There’s a huge amount you can do to join and help us in amplifying the asks we’ve set out in the manifesto.  

The key thing is that this is a general election year, and in the lead up to a general election, when all political parties are developing their manifesto, it is the time when politicians should be listening to their constituents. They should be listening to you and me about our experiences and the things we think need to happen to improve this country. So this this the opportunity for people listening to have their voice heard.  

There are a number of ways in which you can do that. So we have an open letter to all the party leaders, which outlines our cause for making cancer a political priority leading up to the general election and for them to make clear commitments to improving cancer outcomes in their forthcoming manifestos. We’ve had over 12,000 people sign that letter in less than a month. And so listeners will be joining growing number of people who are lending their voice to the campaign and asking the political parties to make cancer a priority.  

You can support our general election campaign, which will be launching in the coming months, and if you sign our open letter you’ll receive updates on that and how you can get involved. But this is about how we can engage MPs, how can we speak to prospective parliamentary candidates.  

Oppurtunites for people listening to join us and become Cancer Research UK Campaign Ambassadors. We are blessed at Cancer Research UK that we have so many people who raise money for us, they will volunteer for us in our shops, do fun runs, but also people want to lend our voice to the campaign work we do. And our ambassador program is the opportunity for people to do that, to take further actions, to engage their local politicians, to support the calls we have to make cancer a political priority for all parties in the general election year.  

So have a look at the website, join us. It’s a growing group of people. We don’t just work alone. We are working with other cancer charities as well to see what we can do together to amplify the issues we all know are so important to improving cancer survival in this country. 

Sophie 

While I was chatting to Shaun, something he highlighted was the amount of collaboration it took to create Longer, better lives. He said its development was a ‘labour of love’ but one that isn’t carried alone. From patients to researchers, and even outside organisations. This really had an input from a whole community because this manifesto is for everyone and its outcome will affect everyone. And like Shaun mentioned, to help our mission you can sign the open letter to all party leaders by clicking the link in our show notes.  

Now that we know what the manifesto is, I’m on my own mission in the lead up to the next general election to find out more about the barriers that people with cancer currently face, and how some of the missions in Longer, better lives could help. So make sure to tune into the next episode, where I’ll be talking to Dr Mei Ling to find out about her story and why the manifesto means so much to her. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of That Cancer Conversation Longer, Better lives. This episode was produced by the Digital News Team at Cancer Research UK.  

All the resources mentioned in today’s episode are linked within the show notes. And if you want to be updated on when our next episode drops, you can subscribe to That Cancer Conversation on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.  

Thanks for listening and talk to you next time.