Yet the figures are also a sobering reminder of the task remaining. Many of the cancers with the highest survival rates are also those characterised by significant improvements in treatment on recent years. Today’s news that prostate cancer mortality rates have declined by 20 per cent over the past two decades shows what can be achieved. But for every breast cancer, prostate cancer or lymphoma, there is a lung, pancreatic or oesophageal cancer, where outcomes remain stubbornly poor.
New treatments and better service organisation have transformed the prospects of many patients, but there is much more to do. That survival rates for some cancers remain so low and that so many people continue to die from all forms of cancers are stark reminders of why we must continue to invest in research and development for new treatments. The human cost of cancer also emphasises why we must do everything we can to make the fruits of this investment available to patients as soon as possible. Without this, progress will stall.
The comparison with outcomes in other countries also indicates how far we have to go if we are to achieve the aspiration of having the best cancer outcomes in the world. Outcomes in England have improved, but progress on improving the survival gap with other countries is frustratingly slow.
The work of the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership has shown the contribution to improving survival rates that high quality treatment for patients with advanced forms of lung, breast and ovarian cancer can make. We only have evidence for these three cancers, but it seems reasonable to assume a similar contribution for other forms of cancer.
The ability of the NHS to continue to make available the best treatments will therefore be critical to its ability to improve outcomes. The Cancer Drugs Fund is a welcome policy that is enabling clinicians to do precisely this. Yet the fact that it is needed points to a wider problem. Without the Cancer Drugs Fund, treatment would now be set back a generation.
If we want to continue to improve cancer survival, achieving outcomes comparable with the best in the world, then we need to enable our doctors to use the same new innovative medicines as those available in other countries. It cannot be right that NICE is routinely rejecting cancer treatments that are now regarded as the standard of care in the countries we aspire to emulate, forcing doctors and patients to rely on temporary solutions to access the medicines they need.
There is no stronger example of why the system needs to change. This will be the test of the Government’s commitment to ensuring the NHS delivers a quality of service that is comparable with the best in the world.
Director of Value & Access