Childhood Cancers: Research — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:12 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham 5:12 pm, 7th December 2020

When the Paul family in my constituency were told of their four-year-old daughter Georgia’s cancer diagnosis, their immediate reaction was not one of shock but of, “We can fight this; she is tough.” To then discover that there was absolutely no treatment was simply devastating for the family. Georgia had been diagnosed with DIPG—a brain tumour. She was enrolled on a trial, but it became clear that there was no chance of saving her. No matter what angle the family approached it from, DIPG is universally fatal, as we have heard already. No child has ever survived it.

DIPG remains the most fatal of all childhood brain cancers, and I fear that is in part due to a lack of funding for research. In seven short months, Georgia went from a happy, active and engaged little girl who loved life to losing her ability to walk, talk or swallow. The 28th November just gone marked exactly two years since Georgia died in her family’s arms, leaving them absolutely heartbroken.

Another constituent, Sue Farrington Smith, lost her beloved niece, Alison Phelan, to a brain stem glioma tumour in 2001, three weeks before her eighth birthday and 10 months after diagnosis. Sue went on to establish Brain Tumour Research, an umbrella group of 22 brain tumour charities that have campaigned to move the dial on funding for brain tumour research. Their campaign led to the establishment of the 2016 task group on research, and they are now working with the Government to see how the £40 million Tessa Jowell fund is spent.

The good news is that, in the past 50 years, there have been dramatic improvements in treating childhood brain tumours. Historically, 75% of children affected sadly died, but now 75% survive. That proves what research can do. In about 70% of cases, radiotherapy, which is the only treatment currently offered to DIPG patients, does shrink the tumour, which allows for a few months of normal life before it returns. Georgia, who I spoke of earlier, was one of the unlucky ones for whom radiotherapy did nothing.

I welcome the fact that improving cancer outcomes, including for children, is a major priority for the Government. I support the £1.2 billion that the Government have put into the cancer drugs fund, which has helped 95,000 people, including children, to access the latest and most innovative cancer care drugs. We have to recognise, however, that in the UK only 20.8% of childhood cancer research is Government-funded, and the rest of the funding comes from charities, the fundraising for many of which has been severely hampered by covid.

Let us commit to providing that new research funding for childhood cancers and ensure that a legal proportion of other funding must be used for childhood cancer research to adequately balance the years of life lost against the relative rarity of conditions. This is about the children who will be diagnosed in the future and who will face the same dreadful, awful news that Georgia and her family did. That will happen year after year, unless funding is allocated to research.