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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:28 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 5:28 pm, 7th December 2020

I am glad to participate in this important debate. I thank Tonia Antoniazzi for the comprehensive exposition that she gave at the start of the debate, and all those who signed the petition calling for more funding for and focus on childhood cancers. The fact is that this petition was born out of a sense of frustration and grief. That is why more 109,000 people across the UK signed the petition, and why so many people in my constituency supported it.

Twelve children in the UK are diagnosed with cancer daily, and one in five will die within five years, often of the deadliest types, such as DIPG—brain stem cancer, which we have heard a great deal about. Yet as we have also heard, there has been insufficient funding for research into these childhood cancers, and little or no progress in the treatment of DIPG appears to have been made over the past 60 years, while treatments for cancer in general have made positive strides.

DIPG, or diffuse midline glioma, accounts for between 5% and 10% of all childhood brain tumours. They are high-grade, fast-growing tumours and can spread throughout the brain. The main treatment for this type of cancer is radiotherapy, but it remains difficult to treat and the prognosis is poor, as we have heard from several Members during today’s debate.

The fact is that young people who face cancer do so with unique challenges. It is the largest killer disease of young children, and as my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald reminded us, cancer is rarer in children and young people than in adults, but it is often more complex and difficult to treat. As such, greater funding of research and greater focus on childhood cancers are important and will undoubtedly contribute to prolonging and saving young lives in the future. What we are debating today is about saving the lives of children.

For a few years now, I have been in correspondence from time to time with a woman in my constituency called Fiona Govan, who also spoke with the hon. Member for Gower. Fiona is an ordinary woman, but in some ways she is also pretty extraordinary. Since the loss of her young grandson, Logan Alexander Maclean, who passed away at three years old on 17 October 2017, she has worked extremely hard to raise awareness of the disease that claimed his young life.

Logan was diagnosed with DIPG. His family were told that he would not see his fourth birthday, and he did not. What news to receive about your little boy or grandson. The family, like many before them, had never even heard of DIPG. Logan coped with his biopsy to confirm his diagnosis—apparently, some children do not and immediately lose even more function. He also responded well to palliative radiotherapy, the treatment that has been the only option since the 1960s. However, as advised, Logan’s family made as many wonderful memories with him as they could, treasuring every moment they had left with him. As we might expect, Logan’s family have nothing but praise for Logan’s treatment and the medical professionals who cared for him at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow, University Hospital Crosshouse in Kilmarnock and CLIC Sargent, and so many others.

Logan’s grandmother, Fiona Govan, does not want other families to suffer the loss that she and her family have. She was keen to let me know, in preparation for this debate, that we should remember that every year, children with their whole lives ahead of them—with all their unfulfilled potential—develop what seem like minor ailments, only for their parents to be told that their child will soon die of DIPG. It might be that the child develops a slight limp, as Logan did when he was two years old. It might be that they mention a pain in their hand, like Reece, aged 11, did. They might start to choke on their food, as Sofia, aged six, did. Like Eva, aged four, they might develop a lopsided smile, or like Evie, aged 13, they might begin to slur their speech. They may have night terrors like Ollie, aged 12, or migraines and vomiting as Izzy, aged 16, did. There are so many other cases. Gradually, these children lose their motor functions. Following diagnosis, some children survive only weeks, some are spared for a few months and, very occasionally, some will have a few years, but they will all die.

I mention these children as a reminder to all of us that the loss caused by childhood cancer must not become about abstract statistics. The loss is real, and families are never the same again after the loss of a child. The death of a child is unlike any other loss it is possible to experience, because it is the loss of a life unlived—the loss of a promised future—and defies all natural order. Parents burying children is a grotesque inversion of nature. It is the lot of children to bury their parents, not the other way around.

Just as many of my parliamentary colleagues did, I signed a letter calling on the Chancellor to uplift UK Government support for medical research to ensure that vital research on childhood cancers can continue, but not just that: research is needed to improve outcomes, with ring-fenced funding for children whose cancer is more complicated and difficult to treat than many cancers in older people. The fact is that so little progress has been made on DIPG, which is both distressing and alarming. That explains why DIPG is being treated in the same way it was in the 1960s. That cannot be right, considering that it is so deadly and accounts for so many childhood brain tumours, and given advances in treatment of other cancers.

We know that medical research budgets are under huge strain due to the restrictions on raising funds that covid-19 has created. That strain will impede and impact on medical research. The Government must ensure that research on DIPG is given greater priority. We cannot bring back the children who have been lost to cancer or the dreadful DIPG, but we can honour the memory of the children who have gone by deciding to renew our commitment to fund research into childhood cancers, which will help save children’s lives in the future. The Government must be able to say—we all must be able to say—that we are doing all we can to save children’s lives.