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Expert warns UK cancer pathways are ‘in crisis’

Published: 14 December 2022 at 23:30

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Increase in excess cancer deaths ‘set to continue unless urgent action is taken’

Cancer treatment in the UK faces a watershed moment as post-pandemic services creak under the weight of demand, according to leading doctors and oncologists including Professor Gordon Wishart, of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).

In a new essay published in The Lancet Oncology, experts have set out the situation facing UK cancer care, which they describe as “desperate and urgent”, with some areas such as radiotherapy “critically threatened” with collapse. 

These experts have made seven recommendations to the Government to urgently address the issue. These include recognition of the existence and scale of the Covid-induced cancer backlog; appoint a minister with the responsibility to lead and oversee a national recovery plan; deliver the ringfenced investment for cancer infrastructure; invest significantly in diagnostic and treatment equipment; commit to fund short-term solutions for workforce issues; and implement new technology solutions and data intelligence recommended by frontline staff.

The authors, from Imperial College, Kings College, Wilmslow Health College and Radiotherapy UK as well as Professor Wishart of ARU and CEO of Check4Cancer, set out their view that delays in diagnosis and treatment are already causing increasing excess deaths. In November 2022, NHS England reported the worst ever waiting times for cancer treatment, and only 7% of NHS Trusts in England currently meet the 62-day cancer treatment target.

Since March 2020 and the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been 8,815 excess cancer deaths, of which 3,327 have occurred in the past six months.

Wishart, Visiting Professor of Cancer Surgery at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

“The Covid-induced cancer backlog is one of the deadliest backlogs and has served to widen the cracks in our cancer services. Readers will be shocked to learn that even before the pandemic, the UK was near the bottom of the cancer survival league tables. 

“Now we face a deadly cancer timebomb of treatment delays that get worse every month because we don’t have a sufficiently ambitious plan from policymakers. I urge the Government to work with us.”

The article was published at 23.30 GMT tonight (Wednesday, 14 December) in The Lancet Oncology, and can be read here.