Are we ready for Britain’s looming cancer crisis?
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Cancer, cardiac and countless other patients are crying out for help – but are ministers listening? Over the last year, politicians have been adopting untried and untested policies, the consequences of which none of us can yet fully grasp. The main aim, of course, of these extraordinary lockdown measures has been to suppress Covid-19 in order to reduce pressure on our hospitals.
That has been the metric on which Government approval has been judged.Whether or not you agree with every restriction, it is clear that this focus has sucked the oxygen away from other pressing health issues. Covid-19 required a response unlike anything we have seen in modern times. But was it right that this happen at the expense of so many other illnesses which have torn apart millions of families?
Too often it has been framed as Covid or cancer; it does not need to be like this. We turned the country on its head to deal with this virus; we now need to tackle the non-Covid health crisis with the same vigour.Cancer, cardiac and countless other patients are crying out for helpI’ve been a consultant oncologist for forty years. I thought I had seen everything but make no mistake: this is the biggest cancer crisis I have ever encountered.
While daily updates on Covid case numbers and deaths give a picture of the grim toll of the pandemic, cancer just doesn’t work like that. A delayed diagnosis can turn a 80 per cent survival rate into 20 per cent and that is over a matter of months, not years. At Rutherford, my cancer centre network, we are now seeing far more patients than usual presenting with later-stage cancers. Lives have already been lost and the insidious, relentless nature of cancer will mean that will continue for some time.
We were told to ‘stay home’ and many seriously ill people did just that. Medical help was delayed and thousands have died or will die because of that. Many of those who have passed away did so at home. Help was there, but many people felt unable to ask for it. That is a terrible shame.It isn’t just cancer. This has affected every corner of medicine. But has the government grasped the severity of the silent crisis we are in the midst of?
We’ve heard that the Cabinet has never been briefed on the impact that the current lockdown has had on cancer diagnosis and other non-Covid health conditions. If true – and there’s no reason to believe it’s not – that is utterly appalling. Lockdowns and restrictions are happening, discussions around that are futile, but what politicians need to do is to at least try and understand the consequences of these policies to mitigate them as best they can.
Ignorance is not an excuse. If ministers haven’t been given a proper briefing, they should demand it. Failing that, they should find out for themselves: it is no big secret.So what can be done? The first big issue to tackle is awareness. It’s uncomfortable for politicians to talk about this subject, but we have to start doing so. A recent poll from Cancer Research UK and Cardiff University found that almost half of people with cancer symptoms did not contact their GP last spring. 31 per cent did not seek help after coughing up blood, nor did 41 per cent with an unusual lump.
These are terrifying numbers.A non-Covid health issue press conference would be a good starting point. The PM needs to outline the urgency of the situation and stress that help is there for those that need it. It won’t solve everything, but it will at least start a conversation. It would do a lot more good than some of the current scripted attempts.
On the treatment side, it is going to take a huge amount of investment – in staff, technology and infrastructure – to deal with what is coming. With the financial effort that has been allocated to the Covid-19 response, many would expect a similar effort for other deadly illnesses. In cancer, embracing technology is vital. Proton Beam Therapy, SABR and other precision radiotherapy tools can help clear the backlog.
Hospitals are currently trailing a miniature camera which is swallowed to diagnosis cancer. This is a fantastic innovation and it’s just what we need to see.To someone who has watched the devastating impact of a delayed cancer diagnosis far too many times, the almost complete silence on this issue feels totally wrong. The non-Covid health crisis is here and it’s raging. We need a national effort to get this under control. Cancer, cardiac and countless other patients are crying out for help. Let’s hope ministers are listening.
WRITTEN BY Professor Karol Sikora