Lift the ‘unsung hero’ of cancer care out of crisis

How cancer can be treated with radiotherapy

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Britain is in the grip of a cancer crisis. Wait times for 2022 were the worst on record with more than 50,000 patients a month waiting two weeks to see a specialist. Some 25,000 patients in England were forced to wait more than a month for treatment last year – five times as many as a decade before.

Although record numbers eventually started treatment, every national cancer target was missed at least once for the first time ever.

The damning figures have piled pressure on the Government not to scrap its ten-year cancer plan – a long-term strategy dedicated to fighting the disease and investing in future services.

The plan was unveiled by then-health secretary, Sajid Javid, who declared a “national war on cancer” to recover services hit by the pandemic.

But it was recently announced that the scheme would be axed in favour of a “major conditions strategy” – part of a new multi-disease plan.

The decision leaves England as one of only a handful of countries without a dedicated national cancer plan.

Estimates suggest cancer cases will rise from 384,000 cases per year now to 506,000 in 2040 if current trends continue, with deaths set to rise by almost a quarter over the same period.

One of the “unsung heroes” in fighting cancer is Radiotherapy.

The treatment is needed in four out of ten cancer cures and used in half of all cancer patients.

But Radiotherapy cancer care is in crisis too – at breaking point due to a lack of investment and thousands of lives will be lost without urgent action.

Of all the treatments for cancer, it is the one most overlooked for investment.

It’s never had the profile that surgery and chemotherapy have despite the fact that it is incredibly cost effective.

A typical cure by radiotherapy can be as little as £3,000 to £7,000.

By comparison, some chemotherapy drugs can cost up to £100,000 per year per patient.

The hi-tech treatment, which is delivered by a relatively small team (less than 6500) specialists nationwide, has been transformed during the past decade.

But the UK does not have enough radiotherapy machines and the ones we have are getting old and many can’t deliver modern treatment.

France has 8.5 machines per million population, England has only 4.8 machines per million population.

And there are radiotherapy “desert areas” in the UK, in which patients have to take long journeys to get to a centre with a machine.

Currently, 3.5 million people live outside the recommended travel time of 45 minutes.

New radiotherapy machines – which cost around £2.4 million each – can treat more patients even more quickly.Over the next five years, we will need 200 new machines to catch up and keep up.

Campaigners say that if a new machine is efficiently used over its lifespan, the cost of treatment per patient is £400.This is why the Daily Express is on Monday launching a crusade to get a commitment from the government to ramp up investment in radiotherapy.

Our campaign has three simple demands;

1. A rolling programme of new radiotherapy machines to replace the old ones and secure more to keep up with the rising incidence of cancer.

2. A commitment to open new satellite radiotherapy centres in areas without treatment facilities to drastically reduce journey times.

3. A boost to the radiotherapy workforce to make sure the radiotherapy sector can play its full part in busting the cancer backlog and help get the UK back to the top of the survival league tables.

To achieve this, it will require a £1 billion boost over 5 years.

Our crusade is backed by Radiotherapy UK and the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign.

Manchester United and England legend Bryan Robson OBE, who survived cancer himself and received lifesaving radiotherapy in Thailand, has also thrown his weight behind our crusade.

He said: “This vital treatment needs more investment and priority. But without Government action little will change. That’s why I’m urging Daily Express readers to get behind this vital campaign.”

Crucially, the desire to boost funding for radiotherapy has cross-party support in parliament.

Lib Dem MP, Tim Farron, the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Radiotherapy, said: “In the midst of a total cancer crisis, the Government has added fuel to the fire by quietly scrapping its long-promised 10-Year Cancer Plan. Frontline clinicians have the right recommendations for the Government, but Ministers aren’t listening.

“We desperately need investment to replace out-of-date radiotherapy machines, solve workforce shortages, and to fund timesaving auto-contouring technology if we’re to beat this almighty cancer backlog. We’re not asking to put man on mars. The solutions are simple, and they’ll prevent lives being lost unnecessarily.”

APPG vice-chair, Conservative MP Henry Smith, said: “Radiotherapy machines can and should play a key role in treating cancer patients, especially as we look to overcome the Covid backlog.

“Many radiotherapy equipment is manufactured in the UK – including my Crawley constituency – and so it’s deployment is not only vital to help those with cancer hopefully recover but represents a high-tech investment in British employment and economic growth.”

Fellow vice-chair, Labour MP Graham Morris, said: “There is no doubt, in this country, there is an unresolved cancer treatment backlog and we have some of the worst cancer outcomes of any comparable western country.

“Ministers need to address the lack of adequate NHS cancer treatment capacity and recognise that investment in modern radiotherapy treatment will help to dramatically improve cancer survival rates in this country.

“Radiotherapy is one of our most important cancer treatments, yet it is treated as a Cinderella service and denied the vital investment it needs.

“Millions of people live outside the recommended travel time to access radiotherapy treatment and there is no national plan to replace old machines with the most modern and effective precision radiotherapy machines.

“If ever there was a time to invest in high-tech modern radiotherapy, that can treat more patients faster and more effectively, it is now.”

Between 2016 and 2022 at least £162 million was invested to make sure NHS trusts have access to cutting edge equipment, including the replacement or upgrade of more than 100 radiotherapy treatment machines.

“According to the latest figures 91% of people began treatment within 31 days where the subsequent treatment was a course of radiotherapy in December 2022 which was up on the previous month.

“We have increased the cancer workforce by 4,300 additional staff between 2016 and 2021 and are investing an additional £50 million this year to increase this further.”

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