Mark Simmonds is the MP for Boston and Skegness and a former Foreign Office Minister
Cancer incidence rates in Britain have increased by more than a third since the mid-1970’s and today the NHS is successfully seeing 51 per cent more patients with suspected cancers than four years ago. It is predicted that over the next 20 years, the number of new cancer cases will rise by around 70 per cent globally. Cancer is the number one fear of the British public, ahead of debt, knife crime and Alzheimer’s.
With the news that half of cancer patients are likely to survive ten years or longer we should all recognise the immense improvements that have taken place in this area of healthcare. By investing £750 million over the last four years into improving early diagnosis and treatments, this Government is on track to exceed the ambition of saving 5,000 more lives a year.
The proportion of people surviving for one year and five years after diagnosis has increased significantly. Survival rates have never been higher.
In addition to improved waiting times (93.5 per cent of patients are seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent GP referral), treatments and outcomes, the £731 million Cancer Drugs Fund has helped over 60,000 patients in England get the medicines they need, dramatically improving survival rates and quality of life for cancer victims. Care, as well, has never been better. Almost nine out of ten patents say that their care is excellent or very good.
NHS staff have clearly had a significant role to play in these improvements and should be commended and praised. These advances would not be possible without their dedication to tackling this disease and caring for those affected.
Successes such as these should be celebrated and data gathered from more challenging aspects of cancer care can be used to inform future spending decisions, ensuring that money is targeted where it is not only needed the most, but can also have the biggest impact on patient outcomes. We saw this most recently with the realignment of the Cancer Drugs Fund. Patients should be reassured that the money is being used to maximise its impact.
There is now also much better information available to strengthen the evidence base which informs decisions on cancer services. Notably, the proportion of newly diagnosed cancers with staging data increased by about 50% between 2007 and 2012. This record of how advanced a patients’ cancer is at the point of diagnosis can be used to target gaps in knowledge for both GP’s and patients, making everyone more aware of potential symptoms.
However, there is always room for improvement and some of the data collected is still not being routinely linked to cost, meaning that it is difficult to estimate value for money and commissioners are still in the dark when making some very tough decisions about cancer services. It is imperative that we do not become complacent about the rate of progress which is being made. We can still do better and the amount of information collected, and properly utilised, can only save us time and money, allowing further advances and the refocusing of resources to maximise patient outcomes.
Despite huge progress in cancer awareness campaigns, it is sadly still that case that over 40% of cancer cases are due to lifestyle factors, indicating that a significant proportion of cancer cases are avoidable. Smoking alone causes 19% of all new cancer cases each year. In 2011 that amounted to 64,500 cancer patients. Cancer Research UK estimates that 89% of lung cancer cases could be prevented each year.
An estimated nine per cent of cancer cases in the UK each year are linked to eating too little fruit and vegetables, eating red and processed meat, eating too little fibre, or eating too much salt. 51 per cent of stomach cancer cases are contributable to dietary factors.
It also very evident that those who suffer the worst cancer outcomes are those from more deprived backgrounds. There would be nearly 20,000 fewer deaths from cancer each year if mortality rates for all socio-economic groups were the same as the least deprived. We must ensure that all strata’s of society know the signs to look for, and do not delay in approaching their GP. Health inequalities matter and must be taken into consideration when assessing care and outcomes.
GPs and patients have a role to play in ensuring that cancer victims have the best chance of survival by beginning treatment as early as possible. Currently, 1-in-5 people are diagnosed via emergency presentation. Patients diagnosed in this way are twice as likely to die as those diagnosed via an urgent GP referral.
Evidence suggests that even if early diagnosis rates rose by 10 per cent, this could ensure 8,000 more patients are alive five years after diagnosis. This is why a new initiative launched by the NHS and correctly involving key cancer charities and organisations, will aim to dramatically improve the rate of early diagnosis in the UK. Patients will be able to book their own appointments directly with a diagnostic service or testing unit instead of having to go through their GP and community pharmacists will be able to fast-track patients when recurring symptoms present. We must ensure that patients have the information they need to take advantage of these measures.
As the NAO report points out we have made “significant progress” since 2010 on cancer care but more remains to be done. A patient centred and relentless focus on improving outcomes is required to help improve early diagnosis rates. More can be done to improve access to care and early diagnosis. If we move care closer to the patient and provide patients with accessible and understandable information, they will be empowered to defeat this disease.