The government has unveiled a five-year plan to boost cancer services in the UK, including an injection of £370 million over the next two years to help bring cancer survival more in line with that achieved by many of the country’s European peers.

Despite the Cancer Plan launched back in 2000 and a considerable healthcare budget, a recent study found cancer survival in the UK to be lagging way behind that of many countries in Europe, which led to accusations that the Plan just wasn’t working.

But the government has promised that the new NHS Cancer Reform Strategy is packed full of measures to effectively fight the disease and better patient care, and that it will transform existing services from prevention and diagnoses to treatment and aftercare.

Launching the new plan yesterday, Health Secretary Alan Johnson said: “I have pledged that NHS cancer services will do even more for patients. More to help reduce the risk of developing cancer, more to ensure access to high quality treatment and more to deliver care in the most clinically appropriate and convenient setting for patients.”

Clinical Director of Cancer Services Mike Richards added: “We have made good progress on cancer over the past 10 years…[but] we know there is much more to be done. The commitments in the Cancer Reform Strategy will enable us to develop world-class cancer services in this country, saving more lives and ensuring patients get the care they deserve.”

Key themes
Central veins of the strategy include a heightened focus on disease prevention, speeding-up access to treatment, an expansion of screening services, fast-track drug approval and extended after care services for those surviving the disease.

More specifically, measures to help boost disease prevention include a consultation on whether cigarette vending machines should be removed and whether shops should display cigarettes less prominently, as well as possible regulation of sun beds to help cut down the incidence of skin cancer. The recent endorsement of a human papillomavirus vaccination programme for teenage girls should also go some way to slashing the rate of cervical cancer, the Department of Health noted.

And to promote earlier diagnosis and treatment, the government plans to: invest £100 million in new digital mammography equipment; extend breast and bowel cancer screening; increase radiotherapy capacity over the next three years and invest £200 million in new equipment and staff; and, where possible, refer cancer drugs to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence “in parallel with the licensing process to minimise delays in making new treatments available”.

Response to the plan has been largely positive, with much applause from Cancer Research UK, which has been gunning for cancer service reform for some time. Its chief executive, Harpal Kumar, said: “Cancer Research UK was one of the many expert groups involved in developing the strategy so we look forward to working with the NHS to deliver these recommendations. It’s vital that these proposals are followed through if we’re to become among the best in the world at treating cancer.”

He welcomed several of the measures laid out in the report to help improve the current situation, including “the commitment to ensuring that all cancer drugs, wherever possible, are assessed by NICE as soon as they are licensed. This will help put an end to the current situation where patients are left in limbo waiting many months, or even years, to find out if new treatments are to become available on the NHS.”

ABPI calls for alternatives
But although it also welcomed many aspects of the plan, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry remains unconvinced of seeking simultaneous NICE endorsement and regulatory approval for new products.

“With most medicines, it is difficult to assess medicines’ cost-effectiveness at launch – the relevant data are simply not available – and this is especially true of cancer medicines licensed on the basis of results in ‘late stage’ and ‘last resort’ therapy. Other ways of achieving the objective - such as provisional approval on condition of collection of evidence - must be sought,” said ABPI General-Director Richard Barker.

And he went on to stress: “Despite all the headlines, cancer medicines currently cost the NHS just 1p in the pound. This should not be a question of switching money between medicines, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and other treatments, but for all aspects of cancer care to be given adequate funding”.