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When it comes to cancer care, England isn’t quite in tiptop fighting form; it’s more like fictional boxer Rocky Balboa before his training montage.

Our waiting times are unacceptable; staff working in diagnostic services are struggling with an ever increasing workload; and patients are missing out on potentially life-saving targeted and personalised treatments.

But today we‘re blasting out Eye of the Tiger – because the Government has taken a big step towards getting cancer services into peak condition.

From commitments to diagnosing cancer earlier, through to care for people living with the disease, today’s announcements take a great first step towards saving thousands more lives and ensuring improvements for patient experience and quality of life.

It was only July when the Independent Cancer Taskforce report was published, outlining ambitious but welcome recommendations that would help England* become a world leader in cancer outcomes.

Since then, we’ve been busy making the case that the Government and NHS should introduce the Taskforce’s recommendations, as changes to diagnosis and treatment would make a huge difference to people affected by cancer.

Cancer Research UK has been campaigning for these changes and many of you have added your support through our Test Cancer Sooner petition, which you can still sign. Our work isn’t done yet, but this is a great start.

So where has the announcement come from, and what will the changes mean for patients?

Achieving world-class outcomes

It’s clear that we can get better at diagnosing people earlier – as shown by the unacceptable waiting times for test results highlighted recently by the President of the Royal College of Radiologists. And our recent reports, Horizon Scanning and Scoping the Future, show that services for diagnosing cancer are struggling under their current workload, and that this demand is only going to increase.

We have also called for treatment to be better targeted through ‘molecular’ diagnostics, as this would help doctors to give patients treatments tailored to their specific needs.

So it’s a great first step that today the Department of Health has shown its commitment to upping its game and achieving world-class cancer outcomes. The Government has announced that, supported by the NHS, it will:

  • Introduce a 28-day diagnosis ambition so patients receive a definitive cancer diagnosis, or an ‘all clear’, within 28 days of being referred by a GP. Patients will also be able to get their test results online as soon as they are available.

Taskforce

  • Invest in the diagnostic workforce and equipment over the next five years, which will add up to £300m a year by 2020. We know that the NHS will need to do more cancer tests – because our population is getting older, more people will be referred by GPs using the new NICE cancer referral guidelines, and we hope more people will take up the offer of screening – so having well-resourced diagnostic services means these tests can be carried out quickly.
  • Train 200 more staff to carry out endoscopies by 2018, in addition to the extra 250 gastroenterologists the NHS has already agreed to train in the next five years. Together, the Government estimates they will be able to carry out up to half a million more endoscopies by 2020.
  • Make molecular diagnostic tests routinely available to all patients that might benefit. The aim is that around 25,000 additional people a year will have their cancers genetically tested to identify the most effective treatments.
  • Give patients more control of their records so that, if they want to, they will be able to access their tests results online and other personal health information.
  • Help people live beyond cancer, through the introduction of a ‘recovery package’ and a way to measure quality of life so that we can see how well the NHS is doing.

These are all fantastic commitments and we’re especially glad to see that there will be investment in cancer tests. We know from the great response to our campaign to Test Cancer Sooner that this is really important to you – as we received more than 10,000 signatures in the first two weeks of the campaign, calling on the Chancellor to increase investment in diagnostics

But there’s still more to do. We know that the Government will be formally responding to the Taskforce report in full at a later date, so we’re looking forward to finding out what they’re planning next. As part of our Test Cancer Sooner campaign, we also still need Chancellor George Osborne to provide the detail about what this means over the next 5 years, in the upcoming Spending Review.

But today’s announcement points NHS organisations in the right direction, so they can take steps to improve cancer outcomes.

Now we want them to set out their plans, so that patients are diagnosed as early as possible and receive the best care. There is a lot more for them to cover – including investment in radiotherapy, and changing the cancer services landscape – so it’s some way to go before they can hit that knock-out punch to achieve world-class cancer outcomes.

But these commitments are going to make big improvements for patients, and this is great news.

– Sara Bainbridge is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK

*This announcement only relates to England, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own devolved healthcare policies.