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England’s cancer strategy: what has changed in the last two years?

Category: Science blog October 19, 2017 Matt Case Comments are closed

Two years ago England’s cancer strategy was launched with an ambition of saving 30,000 more lives each year by 2020.

It featured vital commitments to prevent more cancers, diagnose cancers earlier, and modernise the NHS to help treat cancer better.

But plans need action.

Our Chief Executive, Sir Harpal Kumar, chairs the National Cancer Advisory Group, which keeps track of how the plans are being made reality, and earlier this week he gave evidence to MPs about what’s changed in two years.

Some progress has been made, like the announcement of funding to upgrade radiotherapy machines, but there’s a lot more to be done. This is especially true for supporting understaffed NHS teams that diagnose cancer, as well as addressing cuts to cancer prevention services.

Progress so far

NHS England’s own assessment of progress can be read here, and earlier this week the National Cancer Director, Cally Palmer, said a quarter of the cancer strategy is done and another half is underway.

A National Cancer Team has been created to provide leadership, which led to Palmer’s appointment as National Cancer Director – we’re pleased that the team around her has grown to get more done.

Providing better care for people affected by cancer is the focus of new guidance, as well as a clear plan of what the NHS will do, and when, to make the cancer strategy a reality.

It costs money to make some of the changes the strategy recommends. And so far a significant amount has been invested on top of existing NHS spending on cancer:

It’s great that the Government is putting money behind the strategy. We’re especially pleased with the investment to diagnose more cancers earlier – earlier diagnosis can have a big impact on a patient’s chances of survival.

Since the publication of the cancer strategy, 16 Cancer Alliances and 3 National Cancer Vanguards have been set up across the country. These are groups of doctors and NHS managers from hospitals, specialist units and general practice with the specific goal of working together to plan to improve local cancer services, which is really good news.

But they need money from NHS England to make these plans a reality and change local services. Cancer Alliances also need to be able to share what works and what doesn’t, allowing examples of good practice to be developed more widely. Palmer told MPs that there is more NHS England can be doing to help Cancer Alliances talk to each other, which was good to hear.

There have also been initiatives aimed at cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, for example:

This progress is encouraging, but some significant challenges remain before we can reach the ambitions the strategy set. And at a time when the NHS is under considerable strain this won’t be easy.

Big challenges for the NHS

Despite the progress, some of the big challenges the NHS and cancer services face include:

What’s next?

Addressing these challenges is crucial if ambitions are to be met and cancer patients in England are to receive care matching the best in the world.

We are calling for the following steps to be taken:

  1. The Government must stop cutting local public health budgets and give councils the funding they need for vital services, such as Stop Smoking Services.
  2. The Government, NHS England and Health Education England need to publish a plan to tackle shortages in the cancer diagnostic workforce. You can join our campaign for action on this here.

If these challenges aren’t met, there’s a growing danger that the ambitions of the cancer strategy will not be reached.

And that would mean an estimated 30,000 extra lives a year would be at risk, rather than saved.

Matt Case is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK

Update 21/02/18: We have published our assessment of the progress made on the cancer strategy. We’ve found that while some progress has been made, a lot more needs to be done to keep it on track. Read the full report.

England’s cancer strategy: what has changed in the last two years?