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We know that when it comes to cancer, timing matters. 

But at the moment in the UK cancer waiting time targets are consistently being missed and patients can wait up to 7 weeks longer to begin cancer treatment than people in comparable countries. 

When looking at these figures we can often forget that behind those missed targets, there are real people. Someone who is having to wait for a possible life altering diagnosis or to start treatment.  

But what does that feel like? 

Welcome to episode two of Longer, better lives, a new mini-series where we’ll be unpacking our recently launched manifesto for cancer research and care.  

In our last episode I spoke to Shaun Walsh, head of public affairs and campaigns at Cancer Research UK to learn more about some of the pledges in our manifesto.  

But in this episode, we’ll be looking at our manifesto from a slightly different perspective, through the eyes of someone who has gone through a cancer diagnosis and treatment themselves.   

I spoke to Dr Mei Ling Lancashire. As a GP who received her own cancer diagnosis, she’s experienced the cancer pathway from both sides. 

Reflecting on her experiences, she shared her message on why she believes politicians need to start prioritising cancer.  


Mei-Ling, thanks for joining me today. So some of our listeners might recognise you from our ‘Together we are beating cancer’ campaign. But for those who aren’t familiar with your story, could you just tell me a bit about yourself and also your cancer experience? 


Yes. So I found a lump in July 2021, when I was showering and basically been doing a weights workout that morning, and was particularly sweaty, because obviously it was the middle of summer. And I was as I was washing, I just kind of felt a lump in the sort of right upper outer part of my breast, which literally hadn’t been there sort of the day before, the month before. And the minute I felt it, I was just like, Oh, God, that’s cancer 

I’m a GP, so kind of felt a fair few of them and my time. And obviously, I stood there just having a field thinking, and it just felt like my entire world had collapsed around me because, you know, if it was it fits ever been, you know, healthy diet, exercise, all the right things, I just couldn’t understand how it could be there.  

I’m a single mum, and at the time, my girls were 6 and 4 (years). So my first thought was, you know, ‘I’m gonna die, I’m not gonna see them grow up, how am I going to tell the kids, you know, who’s gonna, who’s gonna look after them’ having all of those thoughts. 

And so then, I obviously went in to see my own GP, got a referral was seen at the sort of cancer clinic. And everything sort of flowed fairly swiftly from there in terms of diagnosis. 

And so that was yes, that was July. And then sort of, it took nearly 2 months before I started treatment, which was, you know, that was one of the hardest parts in terms of just waiting for a spot because the, the chemotherapy date unit was just absolutely rammed stuff off sick, there was just there was no space. And it’s just this really odd sort of scary feeling, just knowing that there’s something that can potentially kill you just ticking as a time bomb and having absolutely no control whatsoever to expedite that treatment, and nothing that you can do about it. 


Yeah, that’s like, almost added pressure, that waiting period, it just gives you time to keep going over the things that you just don’t want to think about. And like you said, you know, you’re a doctor by background, what did it feel like being on the other side of treatment and care, you know, you usually give a diagnosis and give treatment as your day to day work. But now you’re on the other side of it, what was that like? 


So it’s kind of a double edged sword. So being sort of a doctor patient is a unique experience. So on the one hand, there is some sort of power in the knowledge that you have, and knowing that, you know, I was researching the trials, looking to see, you know, what was available. I had colleagues who worked into cancer care, so I was able to sort of ask them for sort of ideas and recommendations. 

And chose to have my chemotherapy at the (Royal) Marsden. Because it’s the centre of excellence, I was able to find an amazing surgeon, Katie Hepburn, who sort of she uses a lateral approach to, to when she does a breast surgery, so that instead of having scars on the front of your chest, they’re sort of at the side. And that is a massive sort of thing, when you have, you know, the daily reminder of the fact that you know, you had cancer, you’ve had surgery. But on the other hand, you know, I think colleagues always sort of really keen to try and to treat you with a bit of professional courtesy, acknowledging that, you know, you’ve got some background knowledge. And so the downside of that is that actually, often you don’t get to be a patient. 

And for me, it felt like I kind of almost had to have like this brave face and be sort of professional about it. And, you know, I don’t know, maybe that was my own sort of expectations rather than anybody else’s. And I guess in a way, it was probably also a self-protection mechanism, because it was a way to sort of emotionally disconnect from the reality. So you know, we’re in our work into the working life as a doctor, you have to protect yourself, you have to sort of be clinical to get through some of the really awful things that we have to deal with. So I guess part of that meant that I was able to have that sort of slight disconnection because you know, the reality of feeling all those feelings it’s horrific. I mean, you know, there’s just no, I’ve seen, I’ve had to break news, you know, to patients that they’ve had cancer. And I’ve seen, you know that the change in their faces, but to sort of be in that position myself, it was just, yeah, it was horrific it was, I can’t describe how frightening how terrifying it was. And again, just not being able to make it better. I’m used to making stuff better, and I couldn’t make myself better. And I felt just powerless. 


And you, you’d have to hand over that control to, you know, colleagues, other people, as well. And something you mentioned, was that waiting period did, did you feel that you were aware of waiting and like, that sort of problem that’s around, because I know that we’ve seen that waits,  you know, the targets keep getting messed, and it’s a really big problem, but were you aware of that, before having treatment and before being diagnosed with cancer.  


So I’ve never realised, sort of why I hadn’t realised what the kind of delay was sort of around that time, sort of, you know, coming out of COVID, post COVID. 

I’d always thought, you know, we did a rough weekend, we saw the patients, we did their referrals, they went to this 2 week wait clinic, within 2 weeks, you know, patients would be on a pathway to treatment and, and, you know, the, in terms of the, you know, the, you know, the delay sort of insert, for some cancers, a delay of 4 weeks, in starting treatment can increase the risk of dying by 4 to 6%. And so, you know, that sort of, you know, the cancer targets, you know, they haven’t been they haven’t been hit, since, you know, 2015 my life then come, you know, there’s a target for around 85% of patients to sort of start treatment within 2 months, a decision to treat that hasn’t been hasn’t happened since 2015. 

You know, obviously, COVID played a part in that, but it’s not the only factor in, you know, that is just one thing that has to end, you know, people are, you know, are unnecessarily dying, because they cannot access the treatment that they need, you know, survival rates in the UK are lagging behind, that’s just absolutely unacceptable, that cannot be allowed to continue to happen, and we need to act now. 


Absolutely. And I can imagine this quite actually infuriating to feel it on, you know, and to see that, what is happening and feeling that waiting period as well. And so I know that you also helped with our launch, for our manifesto, Longer, better lives. What were your thoughts about the manifesto? I don’t know if you’ve read it. But I was just wondering if you if you had any thoughts about it? 


Yeah, I mean, I’ve read it. And, you know, I mean, if I could sort of deliver it, we could hand deliver it personally to recently politician and leading sort of, you know, personally in the UK, you know, I would do I mean, it’s, you know, research is not optional, it saves lives. And, you know, if we look at what has happened historically, you know, over a million lives have been saved in the UK since the 1980s. Because of research, by organisations, by funded by cancer research, UK, you know, I mean, in the UK, it’s absolutely crazy, you know, the UK is reliant on charitable funding for cancer research.  If you exclude sort of industry funding, 62% of research in the UK is funded by, by charities such as Cancer Research UK, and only 38% of that is funded by the government, you know, that that’s that, again, is just, it’s just not acceptable. 

And I think what I hadn’t realised was what a huge funding gap there is sort of in the UK in order to sort of, you know, fund the research that needs to happen over the next 10 years. I mean, in terms of, you know, some of the statistics on that I think there’s more like a billion pound funding gap over the next 10 years that that needs to be filled. And you know, it is absolutely incredible that so many people are so generous with their money you know, they give their money, they get their time they raise funds you know, they give gifts in legacies and Wales and that is literally what is holding, you know, cancer research in the UK together, but that that funding has to be matched because you know, you know that we cannot be you know, the country that you know, people are dying prematurely.  


Absolutely, I think, you know, when we have such great science from researchers within the UK, it almost feels even more frustrating. 


We have some of the best brains in the world, in the UK, working in places like the Francis Crick Institute working in, you know, labs all over the UK, you know, funded by Cancer Research UK. You know, when I was a medical student, I did, breast cancer research is sort of part of my summer jobs. And I worked in a lab that was funded by Cancer Research UK, and those were the sort of the labs that first, you know, found some of the genes that were first identified in, you know, the gateway of the cancer pathway.  

And, you know, we need to, you know, especially with obviously, things that have changed post Brexit, you know, we need to not fall behind. We need to keep these people, you know, in the, in the UK, we need to give them the opportunities to work to do that research, and to give access to patients earlier to treatments, you know, that are, you know, that can be cutting edge, because, you know, it’s not just about, you know, it’s about finding kind of kinda treatments as well, in terms of, you know, some of the current treatments like chemotherapy, there, we’re still relying on technology and sort of, you know, drugs that were found in the 1970s/1980s, that, you know, they’re amazing drugs, but they don’t just kill cancer cells or kill normal cells. And so there are, you know, huge side effects, you know, some of which are lifelong, especially for people who were treated for cancer in childhood and adolescence. And I’d always sort of been aware of the kind of cancer pathway and, you know, of chemotherapy and stuff, but I hadn’t really realised what impact it had on people’s lives. 

I would remember just sort of every time I had to go to the day unit, it’s a really odd feeling to kind of have to force yourself to go in somewhere, knowing that you’re going to come out feeling awful. 

And you just start to sort of come back from one cycle of chemotherapy and then literally go in and it would, it felt like when the fuse went out that somebody was slight turning the light switch down, and just that whatever energy that I’ve got back was just sort of fading every time. 


Mm yeah and hearing that, I think the pressure is just everywhere and it’s not right that its healthcare professionals and those affected by cancer who feel it the most. That’s really the core of what this manifesto is trying to alleviate.  

But I can imagine there are some who may be listening and think that this is for politicians and policy makers and may not want to get involved, but why do you think it’s important that everyone gets involved in talking about Longer, better lives? 


So this, this isn’t about sort of choosing a political allegiance, this sort of manifesto is, you know, it’s, it’s asking for a cross governments, you know, National cancer cancer Council that’s responsible to the Prime Minister is asking for a long term cancer strategy for England. And it’s asking everybody in government to pledge to work towards the goals of this cancer manifesto. Because in our lives, in our lifetimes, one in two of us will develop some form of cancer. So cancer will touch all of our lives. And, you know, there really isn’t that there’s no reason not an excuse not to get behind it, because unless, you know, we, you know, apply that pressure to all parties, things will not change, we cannot have, you know, a country like England, where there is no national cancer strategy. I mean, it’s just absolutely unacceptable. And people just need to, you know, cast aside their differences. 

And, you know, work together on this, because, you know, it’s something that’s going to affect all of us, and it doesn’t matter, to a degree, you know, where your political allegiances lie, because all politicians need to get behind this because we all need to, to make progress. 

If there was, you know, if I was standing in front of a roomful of politicians, what would I do? Well, I would ask them to look at the person next to them. And then I would ask them to look at themselves, and then ask themselves who’s it going to be? Because if one two of us are going to develop some form of cancer, you know, that’s, that’s, it’s either going to be them or the person next to them. 

And in which case, you know, why would they not back this manifesto? So I would just add everybody in government to get behind this, I would ask everybody who’s listening to just take a couple of minutes of their time to look at the cancer research into the headlines of the CRUK manifesto, to sign the open letter to government and to make this happen, because we should all be able to enjoy longer, better lives, regardless of where we’re from, you know, we need to get rid of the inequalities of access. And you know, the government isn’t in a position now, where they could potentially stop all deaths from smoking. It’s a no brainer, we’ve got to do it. 


Hearing from Mei Ling really brings the pledges in our manifesto to life. Experiences like hers have shaped what we are asking of our government in Longer, better lives. 

People with cancer, no matter where they live in the UK, should feel confident that they will have their cancer diagnosed and treated rapidly.  

With a general election on the horizon, the next UK government has the opportunity to take action to help turn the tide on cancer, including ending the waits.  

If you want to get involved, you can sign our open letter telling party leaders to back our calls and make cancer a priority, the link is in our show notes.  

So, join me next time, where we’ll be looking at one of the pledges in our manifesto in more detail and examine what action the next government could take to help with cancer prevention, and end cancers caused by smoking.  

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. 

This episode was produced by the Digital News Team at Cancer Research UK. Thanks for listening and talk to you next time.