By 2011, all patients in Scotland diagnosed with cancer will receive treatment within 31 days from the date of decision to treat, the Scottish Assembly Government has announced. This goal is part of Better Cancer Care, a new action plan which includes a range of initiatives to improve prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and involving patients in the delivery and design of their care.

Also under the programme: - the current 62-day urgent “referral to treatment” target is to be extended to include patients who screen positive through one of the national screening programmes; - £500,000 is to be invested in supporting and extending Macmillan Cancer Support’s network of benefits advice services and trialling an employability programme to support people with cancer to return to work where appropriate; - a new focus on “survivorship" to help those tackling the disease to live with and beyond cancer; - increased investment in genetic services; and - a focus on ensuring that patients have access to the most up-to-date treatments and technology.

Announcing the action plan, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said: “with the advances in diagnosis, radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy, responses to treatment and comprehensive screening programmes to identify cancers at earlier stages, many more people are living with cancer and it is increasingly being seen as a long term condition. With this comes a range of physical, social, emotional and often financial challenges.”

A new Scottish Cancer Taskforce, chaired by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Aileen Keel, will oversee implementation of the action plan and drive development and change.

The plan’s key recommendations for improving treatment call for: - a review of chemotherapy safety and quality standards in 2011, and keeping a watching brief on any new issues that may arise before then; - encouraging engagement and involvement in experimental cancer medicine to facilitate the evaluation and introduction of new medicines for patients; and - providing a national forum for Scotland's five radiotherapy centres to enable a co-ordinated approach to contingency planning, workforce planning and horizon scanning.

The initiative has been welcomed by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) in Scotland, whose director, Andy Powrie-Smith, said he was hugely encouraged by the government’s approach.
It acknowledges the importance of every aspect of cancer care from prevention to diagnosis to survivorship, and includes not only a commitment to faster treatment but also to ensuring that patients have access to the most up-to-date treatments and technology, he said.

“Cancer medicines development is moving ahead at an unprecedented rate. We are seeing a much greater emphasis on biological rather than cytotoxic approaches. This means medicines that are specific to particular tumour tissue types,” said Mr Powrie-Smith.

“The challenge now is to match the patient outcomes of our English and European neighbours, which will be down to meeting the expectation of this plan that every patient should enjoy speedy treatment and access to the best medicines,” he added.

- Over 15,000 people died of cancer in Scotland in 2007. Lung cancer accounted for the largest number of deaths in both sexes, (29% of in men, 25% of in women). Large bowel, breast and prostate cancer were the other major causes of cancer deaths. In the last decade overall cancer mortality rates have decreased by 12% in men and 5% in women. The number of patients in Scotland diagnosed with the disease is likely to rise to nearly 35,000 per annum during 2016-20, and more will be living longer after their diagnosis.