One in three people will develop cancer in their lifetime. It is a phrase we repeatedly hear, yet despite high-profile campaigns by leading charities the UK lags behind other countries in delivering effective new cancer treatments.
UK cancer patients are losing out on the latest advances in radiotherapy, treatments which experts describe as “cutting edge” in that they are able to target the tumour whilst minimising the damage to nearby tissue. Cancer Research UK has reported that only 7 percent of patients receive newer types of radiotherapy care in comparison to 20 percent in Europe.
This treatment could mark the difference between life and death for many cancer patients yet, despite heavy investment in cancer care over the past decade, such treatments are still not readily available from the NHS. So much so, that each year a number of patients are being denied access to life-prolonging drugs and treatments, in turn forcing some to raise large sums of money to seek treatment abroad.
The NHS continues to be the bedrock of British society but it is clear that a radical shakeup is needed in order for the UK to lead the way for breakthrough cancer care again.
Whilst the latest drugs and treatments inevitably come at a high price – higher than the price of life, it would seem – there has been a colossal level of government waste over the past decade that would in my opinion have been better spent towards cancer care. It appears that investing in illegal wars, aid to the world’s second largest economy, outdated nuclear weapons, benefit cheats, identity cards that don’t work and lame duck quangos (you get the picture) has outweighed the cost of saving lives.
The director of Cancer Research UK, Professor Gillies McKenna, and Dr Ricky Sharma, from the University of Oxford, told the BBC last month that the problem in the UK has been translating basic science into practice. They warned that unless the funding granted by charities and research councils for scientific research was matched by government programmes, the UK would continue to fall behind other developed countries. Therefore, they strongly recommend that the government create a clinical trials network which could deliver breakthroughs found in the laboratory into new treatments for NHS cancer patients.
So what actions is the government taking to catch up with the rest of the world, and is it enough? Having unveiled the much anticipated Comprehensive Spending Review last month, George Osborne described the NHS as “the embodiment of a fair society”. Whilst the coalition’s spending axe is cutting most areas from welfare to defence, the Chancellor insists that the NHS will be ring-fenced from any cuts and that in real terms funding will rise by 0.1 percent a year.
Despite Mr Osborne’s encouraging words regarding the NHS, this rise in funding is one of the lowest since the birth of our much beloved health system back in 1948. Previous plans to have one-week urgent cancer testing and extension of the free prescription scheme have been scrapped.
Nevertheless, the government do appear to be heading in the right direction. The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has recently announced a £600,000 million cancer drug fund in an attempt to help ease the ‘postcode lottery’ debacle of recent years. To improve cancer survival rates, he has also pledged £10.75 million on raising awareness through a “signs and symptoms” campaign in addition to increasing the number of specialists. David Cameron has also announced £60 million for the latest bowel cancer screening, flexible sigmoidoscopy, which could save 3,000 lives a year.
In recent years, there has been great debate in the medical community over the use of a radical treatment called proton beam therapy. This involves using high energy particles of atomic energy to destroy cancer cells, and has been proved to target cancer cells more effectively than radiotherapy. At present, the UK does not offer this treatment, except for one centre which treats eye cancer in the Wirral, and so the NHS have been sending some patients abroad to countries such as the USA, France, Germany and Japan. Others have been forced to raise funds themselves, having been denied NHS funding based on “clinical criteria”.
There is little doubt that the future is nuclear in a world running out of natural resources and oil. However, the potential for nuclear power to destruct human life should not be ignored, as illustrated by increased cancer rates caused by radiation exposure. The UK has a responsibility to use nuclear energy safely and efficiently, in line with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It could start by abolishing its outdated Trident nuclear missile system which will cost an estimated £100 billion over the next twenty years. Atomic energy should be used to save lives, not destroy lives.
Mr Lansley has pledged £43 million for proton beam therapy at three potential sites, including Manchester, Birmingham and London. However, in the long run much more funding is needed, with each centre costing between £50 to 100 million.
Unfortunately, it is true that at some point most families will experience the effects of cancer and so, as a society, we must realise that it is the decisions that are made today that could affect you or your loved ones tomorrow. It appears the government are listening.