Cancer Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:58 pm on 8th December 2016.

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Photo of Rebecca Harris Rebecca Harris Conservative, Castle Point 3:58 pm, 8th December 2016

I should like to add my words of thanks to my hon. Friend Mr Baron for securing the debate. I very much regret the circumstances that mean he cannot be here today. It is unusual to be having a debate on cancer without him, as he works diligently on these matters. I send him my best wishes.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on brain tumours, I very much welcomed the new cancer strategy that was announced in the Chamber just over a year ago, and I am delighted that we have this opportunity to scrutinise it again now. I congratulate the Government on their focus and their direction of travel, and on the fact that survival times are constantly going up. We are absolutely going in the right direction, but like all hon. Members, I want to push the Government to go further, particularly in relation to brain tumours.

We heard earlier from my hon. Friend Henry Smith about the difficulty of early diagnosis of blood cancers and from Nic Dakin about pancreatic cancers. Early diagnosis, about which we hear time and again, is also a problem with brain tumours. People are often turned away by doctors and the cancer is found at the last moment. Jim Fitzpatrick spoke about prevention, but unfortunately we think that only 1% of brain tumours may be preventable, so it is not really an area of exploration for us.

For patients with brain tumours, the only hope of a cure is through research and innovation into the many types of tumour. While such tumours represent just slightly under 3% of all cancers, they are the biggest killer among cancers of children and people under the age of 40. As for years of life lost, it is a devastating disease. Surprisingly, just 1% of the national cancer spend has gone into research into this area of cancer since 2002, which is clearly an injustice for those suffering from brain tumours and is why survival times have not been improving. Brain tumour research remains perennially underfunded, which was highlighted by the excellent Petitions Committee report—its first ever—into brain tumour research funding and the fine Westminster Hall debate. As a result, the Government set up a “task and finish” working group, for which I am extremely grateful. I look forward to the work that that brings forward, but we are not there yet and more must be done.

From reading the NHS’s “One year on” progress report, it appears that there has been much focus on meeting the clinical service recommendations set out in the original strategy. That should be welcomed, but there has been rather less focus on the research and innovation recommendations. While I recognise the importance of clinical services and their potential to improve outcomes in the diagnosis, treatment and care of people affected by brain tumours, we need equal, if not more, focus on research and innovation into potential cures. To that end, I have a few observations to make about several of the research points in the progress report and how realistic they are for patients with brain tumours and about research into the disease.

The report mentions a focus on modernising radiotherapy services and embedding research in the latest investment. Given the location, brain tumour radiotherapy comes with complex side effects, including increases in cranial pressure for some patients, alongside the more common side effects. More precise stereotactic radiotherapy is welcome, but it still does not represent a cure for many brain tumour patients, only an extension of life. The report states that a key 2020-21 metric is an

“Increase in five and ten year survival, with 57% surviving ten years or more”.

However, Brain Tumour Research’s latest report on national research funding, released in October, shows that five-year survival for brain tumour patients is a mere 19.7% in England, lagging far behind other cancers. With a one year survival rate of 46.5%, which is well below the NHS’s 2020 target of 75%, the NHS looks set not to meet its own key measure on brain tumours. In doing so, it is letting down brain tumour patients.

A key paragraph from the NHS progress report states:

“Although a commitment has been made, NHS England has yet to publish its 2016/17 research plan, leaving the NHS without an up-to-date strategy for research. Now that the Accelerated Access Review has been published, we hope that the NHS England research plan is also delivered without delay.”

That appears to be an admission of prioritising other objectives over research. Clinical services are important in the here and now but without proper planning and investment into medical research, ongoing improvements in health outcomes of many diseases will not be realised, and brain tumour patient outcomes will continue to stagnate when compared with other cancers. I welcome many aspects of the progress report, including the launch of a new integrated cancer dashboard to ensure greater analysis of patient outcomes in local areas. I would be grateful to know whether phase 2 of the dashboard will include data on brain tumours, as they do not appear to have been collected in phase 1.

The launch of the national “Be Clear on Cancer” campaign will also hopefully lead to faster diagnosis of cancer for all patients. However, Brain Tumour Research’s latest report shows that, according to the National Cancer Research Institute, the Government spend on brain tumour research represents just 0.52% of its total spend on cancer. It is clear that brain tumour research continues to be drastically underfunded, even with the cancer strategy in place. Therefore, although the strategy is a major step in the right direction, it will need to be made to work for all types of cancer, including the rarer ones and, in particular, brain tumours. Every week, a family loses a child to brain tumour and, as with many cancers, the incidence of brain tumour is rising. I very much hope that that will be taken on board by the new Minister, and he will hear more from me in future about the need to increase brain tumour research.