The government’s spending review is an opportunity to commit funding to improve early diagnosis of cancer

Every day in the UK, around 450 people die from cancer. This number doesn’t appear on daily news bulletins. This number is not inevitable. 

We started volunteering for Cancer Research UK following the early deaths of our spouses. Patrick’s wife, Pam, was misdiagnosed three times before she was finally diagnosed with incurable bowel cancer in 2006, after being admitted to A&E. She died a year later, only 52 years old. Sue’s husband, Philip, died of prostate cancer on Christmas day in 2009. He was only 57 years old. Another avoidable death and another family heartbroken. 

In the 1970s, only a quarter of people diagnosed with cancer survived 10 years or longer. Now, it’s just over half—but it could be so much better. A leap forward in our ability to diagnose cancer at an early stage is critical to improving survival. People diagnosed at the earliest stages of cancer have the best chance of accessing treatment that will dramatically improve their chances of long-term survival. Put simply, early diagnosis saves lives. We’re passionate about improving cancer outcomes and, in particular, early diagnosis, to make sure other families can avoid the devastating experiences we went through.

In February, Patrick was part of a small group of supporters from Cancer Research UK who met Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, in Downing Street. Johnson committed his government’s support for improving cancer outcomes in the UK and, in particular, to improving the early diagnosis of cancer. 

The NHS Long Term Plan makes a commitment to diagnose 75% of cancers at an early stage, now only eight years away. In the UK, we currently diagnose only just over half of patients at an early stage. According to NHS estimates, if we meet the target set, there would be an extra 55,000 people surviving cancer each year. That’s 150 fewer deaths every day. That’s 150 families given the chance to continue making memories together. As of yet, no concrete steps have been made towards these ambitions. 

Sadly, the UK has lower survival rates than other countries around the world. A key issue is staffing levels. Even before covid-19 we had a 10% vacancy rate among NHS cancer diagnostic staffing. [1] The UK is well behind other similar countries when it comes to diagnostic kit available. For example, we have a lower number of CT scanners per million people compared to 23 major economies. 

Since February we have seen some unimaginable changes and challenges due to the covid-19 pandemic. This has shown us the huge importance of investing in research, public health and our NHS. Millions of people are in a screening and testing backlog, which means thousands are missing out on vital early diagnosis. Sadly, like Pam and Philip, people are dying unnecessarily. We know the terrible strain of waiting between tests and diagnosis. The uncertainty, the fear and the dread. That ultimate feeling of losing control and helplessness.

The Government’s Spending Review is an opportunity for a cancer reset to truly build back better and fulfil its existing commitments. We’re not asking for anything new, simply for the Government to follow through on its own manifesto commitments, including to “increase cancer survival rates” and “boost early cancer diagnosis”. 

We could quote endless statistics, but what should motivate us even more is the fact that behind every statistic there is a real person, a real family going through devastating and life changing experiences. Put simply, this is about saving lives. It’s about more couples spending longer together, about families sharing special occasions together, about grandchildren being spoiled by grandparents. It’s about people. And it’s about trying to ensure that more people survive and live well with cancer and beyond. 

We need to give the health system the people and the equipment it needs to reduce the heartbreak of lengthening cancer wait times and growing demand for cancer diagnosis and treatment. 

We’re regularly inspired by the many nurses, doctors, clinicians, scientists and researchers with their passionate commitment to improve cancer outcomes. Along with our political leaders that is such a powerful force, making a difference and transforming lives. We believe with the NHS and our world class research, the UK could and should be the best in the world when it comes to cancer survival. 

Patrick McGuire is a Volunteer Cancer Campaigns Ambassador and PPI contributor with Cancer Research UK, NHS Cancer Programme, Francis Crick Institute @patrickjmcguire

Sue Duncombe is a Volunteer Cancer Campaigns Ambassador, PPI contributor with Cancer Research UK, National Cancer Research Institute, National Institute Health Research and various academic institutions @DuncombeSue 

Competing interests: None declared.