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Let's beat cancer sooner

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced this week that the NHS will invest much more time and money in screening and detecting chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Although the announcement contained nothing new about cancer screening itself (the references to the cervical cancer vaccine, and the extension of breast screening, were essentially last year’s news), it is a welcome change of emphasis from the Government, and one that we here at Cancer Research UK enthusiastically endorse.

When the NHS was set up in 1948, an average 65-year-old man could expect to live for another 13 years. By 2010, it’s predicted that this will increase to over 17 years. On top of this, the proportion of people over 65 is increasing – the UK is getting older.

The NHS has traditionally been good at treating ‘acute’ disease – broken legs, infections and the like – where a person’s treatment is short but intense, with little follow-up. But in an ageing population, chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer become more prevalent, and a country’s health system needs to adapt to reflect this. People will have more extended treatment, lasting over months, years and even decades.

The Prime Minister announced that the UK population will be offered a new range of taregted screening programmes and diagnostic tests, for conditions like heart disease, aneurysms and stroke.

Detecting these conditions and diseases early can make a huge difference to how successful this treatment can be.

So the Government’s new emphasis certainly makes sense and is commendable. But is it enough?

Certainly, as far as cancer is concerned, prevention is better than cure. And bearing in mind that half of all diagnoses of cancer are linked to people’s lifestyles, it’s heartening to hear Mr Brown talking passionately about the importance of this:

“Increasing numbers of people suffer from what are often called ‘lifestyle diseases’ – with smoking and drinking, but most of all obesity, increasingly the main threats to the health of ourselves and our children…

“…these lifestyle diseases now pose as great a threat to the future of a world class NHS as underinvestment posed ten years ago. And our response, and the response of our NHS, to these changes will be one of the defining elements in our lives over the next twenty years – one of the most powerful influences on the kind of society in which we live.”

But this rhetoric needs to be matched with the appropriate action. We want to see concrete policies aimed at preventing cancer, to go hand-in-hand with the new emphasis on screening and diagnosis.

And it’s not enough just to invest in setting up new screening programmes – encouraging people to actually go for screening is absolutely essential, especially amongst lower socio-economic groups. Encouragingly, Mr Brown spoke of the intention to use advertising to encourage people go for screening.

There is also the problem of capacity. It is one thing to detect more cases of disease, but it is another to treat them. The Government needs to make certain that an NHS geared towards the early detection of chronic diseases has the resources needed to deal with them once they are diagnosed.

Ideally, we’d have liked to have seen more in the way of concrete, costed, timetabled proposals. And there have been suggestions from the opposition that funds earmarked for healthcare have been diverted to other areas – this needs to be avoided at all costs.

But all things considered, Mr Brown’s speech contained much to commend it, and was an eloquent statement of his vision for the future of the NHS. The Government is now getting serious about the need to focus on prevention and early detection, for cancer and other diseases, and this an extremely positive start to 2008 indeed.

Henry

You can read a full transcript of Gordon Brown’s speech on Number-10.gov.uk