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One Cancer Voice: Plotting a Route Out of the Pandemic

We’ve teamed up with 46 other cancer charities to demand Governments in all four nations direct resources to clear the backlog of cancer tests and treatments.

Governments across the UK have bold ambitions to improve cancer survival and transform patients’ quality of life for the 1 in 2 of us who will be diagnosed with the disease. Decades of hard work have resulted in cancer survival doubling over the last half a century – now half of people diagnosed with cancer live for 10 years or more. Progress has been made in recognising and addressing the wider support needs of people with cancer. Despite this, tragically, 165,000 people still die of cancer every year in this country and millions have their lives turned upside down by this unforgiving disease. With the number of people in the UK diagnosed with cancer expected to grow to over 500,000 per year by 2035, it’s critical that ambitions to transform cancer survival and patient experience turn into reality, quickly.

Undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic has made the challenge much harder. At the height of COVID-19 surges, thousands of people went undiagnosed, tests and treatments were disrupted, and cancer clinical trials were paused or slowed down. In some cases, this was because people did not access help for possible cancer symptoms. In other cases, changes to cancer services were made. Whatever the reason, the disruption is real, and thousands of people have been impacted.

The NHS has put in enormous effort to protect cancer services and return care close to pre-pandemic levels. But we now know that there are around 40,000 people across the UK who should have started cancer treatment in 2020, but did not – most of whom are in the community, living with cancer without knowing it. It will take months if not years to clear the cancer ‘backlog’ – all the cancer activity that didn’t take place, such as people receiving invites to screening, presenting with symptoms or receiving treatment. As a result, sadly, we’re likely to see more patients diagnosed at a later stage when chances of survival are lower, likely stalling or even reversing improvements in cancer survival. This has also impacted on the wider needs of people with cancer – resulting in a perfect storm of distress in isolation, with new anxieties adding to someone’s experience of cancer.

NHS staff have been the shining light throughout the pandemic. Their commitment, dedication and innovation at a time of huge pressure has been astounding. Staff have collaborated with neighbouring hospitals, made use of the private sector in novel ways and adopted new technologies to ensure as many patients as possible could get the care they need. This willingness to do things differently and adopt innovative practice is the key to driving more productivity, achieving better cancer outcomes, and getting us on track to reaching our cancer ambitions.

We must return, as soon as possible, to driving efforts to prevent cancers, diagnose more patients at an early stage when chances of survival are greatest, and get all care and clinical trials back up and running. It’s critical that Governments in all four UK nations direct resources towards clearing the cancer backlog quickly, adopting innovative practices to accelerate recovery whilst ensuring personalised care for all patients. It is also vital – and only right – that Governments support NHS staff in recovering from the burnout, stress and wider impact that the pandemic has had on their health.

But just getting cancer services back to pre-pandemic levels is simply not enough. We must go further and faster than ever before – so that the NHS can meet the rising demand of cancer incidence, adapt to the added pressure that COVID-19 will likely bring for years to come, and accelerate progress towards the UK’s cancer ambitions. This means rectifying the substantial workforce and equipment shortages that held the NHS back even before the pandemic. It means offering every person holistic care, recognising and supporting them with the wider needs sparked by their cancer diagnosis. It means investing in the power of research and innovation to drive us more quickly towards our ambitions. It means resourcing high quality end of life care for those who sadly need it. It means keeping the needs of a cancer patient woven into how health services are structured. And it means being bolder with measures to prevent ill health, so we can build a more resilient society, take pressure off the health system and prevent more cancers altogether.

Inequalities in cancer outcomes exist in every part of the cancer pathway – there are around 20,000 more cancer cases each year in more deprived areas of the UK – so it is critical to ensure that these actions serve all parts of society.

The case for investment, innovation and change is a social one, an economic one and a moral one. We urgently need bold political will and leadership. Decisions made now will determine whether we live up to the existing cancer ambitions set by the UK Governments, and drastically improve the lives of people affected by cancer. The cancer community stands ready to work with Governments across the UK to turn ambition into reality for all cancer patients.