Doctors warn ‘thousands of lives are at risk’ after abandoning long-term cancer treatment plan
In a letter to the Minister of Health, oncologists say that combining a promised 10-year scheme, specifically aimed at fighting cancer, into a multi-disease strategy covering a range of diseases means “services will be lost in the desert for a decade.”
Professor Richard Sullivan says this will leave England one of the few countries, including North Korea and Afghanistan, without a dedicated national plan to fight cancer.
Wales and Northern Ireland have their own strategies, while Scotland will publish their strategy shortly.
As polls show, the NHS will be a key battlefield in the next general election – ahead of the cost of living crisis – oncologists urged Steve Barclay to think again.
The Sunday Express has become aware of several major cancer charities, and leading experts also plan to write to the health minister to raise concerns.
And Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell accused the government of “quietly abandoning its long-term plan to fight cancer” which she said could cause improved survival rates to “falter”.
The UK has followed a separate plan since the 1980s as medical advances have specialized treatment.
Last February, after service disruptions during the pandemic, then Health Minister Sajid Javid declared “war on cancer” and promised to publish a new ten-year plan.
He said: “May this be the day we declare a national war on cancer… This plan will show how we are taking the lessons from the pandemic and applying them to improve cancer services in the next decade.”
But in response to a parliamentary question last week, it emerged that the plan had been rejected.
Health Minister Helen Whatley said this will now be included in the new five-year “Essential Conditions Strategy”. This aims to consolidate the government’s commitment to mental health, cancer, dementia, and health disparities into one single program.
But Professor Richard Sullivan, director of the Institute for Cancer Policy at King’s College London, said: “Cancer is one of the most complex and costly diseases a country must fight and requires specific strategic plans to address it.
“We are genuinely puzzled by the politics behind this decision. This puts us at odds with the international consensus that countries should have a dedicated national cancer control plan.
“In the long term, this will cost the lives of patients and negate the improvement in survival that we have seen.
“By including cancer in the multichronic disease plan, we are effectively saying that it is no longer a top priority.”
Professor Sullivan is one of the signatories of the letter that will be sent to Mr. Barclay next week.
The signatures were also signed by Prof. Karol Sikora, Consultant Oncologist and former World Health Organization Cancer Consultant, Chief Medical Officer of Check4Cancer Prof. Gordon Wishart, and Angus Dalglish, Professor of Oncology at the University of London.
The letter states: “There is an urgent need for a dedicated, specific cancer control plan to deal with the cancer crisis. Patients are suffering from the longest waiting times for treatment, due in part to the huge backlog caused by Coivd.
“Every four weeks of treatment delay increases the risk of death by 10 percent.
“All the lags are regrettable, but cancer is the deadliest. Every second of us will get cancer sooner or later.”
It further states: “We fear that there is no clinical basis for the government’s decision to withdraw from the special cancer treatment plan. Decreasing attention to cancer in this way risks thousands of lives.”
And he adds: “We already have one of the worst cancer survival rates in Western Europe. The loss of a special plan will cause our cancer treatment outcomes to become even worse. Our cancer services will be lost in the middle of nowhere for a decade.”
The letter follows an analysis by Cancer Research UK which shows that by 2040 the number of diagnosed people will grow by a third to over half a million.
This will result in 208,000 cancer deaths per year – up from 167,000 currently.
In total, by 2040 there may be 8.4 million new cases of cancer and 3.5 million deaths.
The report also says the NHS is not on track to meet its goal of diagnosing 75% of cancers in stage 1 or 2 by 2028.
Michelle Mitchell said the Serious Conditions Strategy was unlikely to prepare England’s health service for the dangerous challenges ahead.
Calling on ministers not to “water down” their commitment to fighting cancer, the head of cancer research said that “a watered down plan runs the risk of not focusing on an existing problem.”
She added: “Cancer is not a single disease, it is an umbrella term for hundreds of diseases, all of which mutate and change over time, and each patient is unique.
“This makes cancer treatment extremely difficult. This is one of the most difficult problems, and scientific discoveries take time.”
And Gemma Peters, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, said the cancellation of the cancer plan was “a major downgrade from what was promised.”
She added: “There are life-threatening issues in cancer treatment that require special attention.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said: “More patients are being treated for cancer than ever before.
“We are determined to achieve the best possible results. In addition, there are currently 92 community diagnostic centers that have performed more than 2.9 million tests, scans and screenings since July 2021, including for cancer detection and other mobile screening stations.”
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