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Thu, 29 October 2020

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Focusing on Blood Cancer Post-Covid-19

Focusing on Blood Cancer Post-Covid-19

Credit: PA Images

Erling Donnelly, Oncology Lead | Pfizer

5 min read Partner content

We are living in difficult times, and there are many competing challenges for the NHS at present, but we must keep cancer as a priority.

Content paid for and supplied by Pfizer

The collective experience of Covid-19 has changed the healthcare landscape forever, and has had a dramatic effect on all of us. The impact on cancer patients is particularly stark. People undergoing chemotherapy for cancer were immediately placed on the list of vulnerable people who needed to shield from the virus, while blood cancer patients were singled out as being among the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ category.

As we approach Blood Cancer Awareness Month at a time of flux and uncertainty, it is worth reflecting on the reality of blood cancer – a condition that often flies ‘under-the-radar’ compared to the ‘big four’ cancers: breast, lung, colon and prostate. But the fact is that every 14 minutes someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer and currently around 250,000 people in the UK are living with blood cancerBlood cancer is a challenging diagnosis, and it has a higher mortality rate than breast or prostate cancer. The overall impact of blood cancers remains hidden, as many are rare and hidden within the cancer registration statistics.The NHS Long Term Plan pledges that by 2028, the NHS will diagnose 75% of cancers at stage 1 or 2. But this is difficult for blood cancers because stages of cancer are associated with solid tumours. This should be reviewed to ensure that all people with blood cancer are benefitting from early and accurate diagnosis.

Furthermore, cancer diagnoses have fallen dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic. Cancer Research UK (CRUK) warns that the number of people being referred by doctors for urgent hospital appointments or checks has dropped by 75 per cent. As a result, 2,300 cancers are being missed every week. Blood Cancer UK’s survey of blood cancer patients show that increasing numbers of people are finding their blood cancer appointments and treatment altered or delayed.

We are living in difficult times, and there are many competing challenges for the NHS at present, but we must keep cancer as a priority. Recent data show that the proportion of cancer patients receiving their treatment 104 days or more after referral has doubled year-on-year. This makes it look like resuming ‘near normal’ service for the NHS this autumn will be difficult.

While significant long-term charitable investment has enabled successful blood cancer research in the UK, a recent inquiry by the Blood Cancer All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) found that blood cancer research is therefore often deemed to be “doing well enough” by Government funders, so it is not prioritised. Furthermore, research has shown that healthcare costs for blood cancers are twice those of average cancer costs, so continued investment is critical.

As a leader in oncology innovation, we at Pfizer will continue to work in partnership with the NHS to provide support wherever we can. For example, during the pandemic, we knew that many oncologists were redeployed to fight the virus, so we established our Medicine Service Programme. We are proud that this global programme has enabled a number of our medical professionals to return to hospitals to support in the treatment and provision of public health support. This includes some of our appropriately qualified UK oncology team, who returned to work in the NHS as doctors and pharmacists to help patients on the ground.

At Pfizer, we will continue doing all we can, with projects such as our free By Your Side website and app, which we developed for people living with cancer and their loved ones.

For blood cancer patients, having been asked to shield for months by the Government, their quality of life and expectation of good long-term health should be valued as we move towards a version of normality. This is not a small ask, especially when you consider rare forms of blood cancer.

No two people with blood cancer are alike, and treatment and responses to treatment can vary greatly. There is more work that needs to be done to address the unique challenges facing people living with blood cancer and narrowing the gap of unmet medical needs for transformative treatments. This is especially important because blood cancers are a major component of cancer mortality rates and unlike other cancers, where lifestyle factors can increase an individual’s risk, primary prevention through lifestyle change cannot reduce disease burden for people with blood cancer.

Despite the scale of the challenge, out of adversity often comes great innovation, and this pandemic has taught us what can be achieved in very difficult and urgent circumstances. This awareness month therefore comes at a crucial time: when we can reassess where we are and reaffirm the commitment made in the NHS Long Term Plan to reduce cancer mortality by 2028.

We are at a turning point for the NHS, for cancer and for all of us, but we must work together to ensure that advances in blood cancer are not lost, that diagnoses are not missed, and that care packages are available to support good quality of life. We would call on the NHS to ensure that blood cancer patient care is safeguarded as services normalise, such as offering telephone or virtual consultations, adjusting standard treatment regimens and discussing alternative treatments and accelerating treatments

At Pfizer, we will continue doing all we can, with projects such as our free By Your Side website and app, which we developed for people living with cancer and their loved ones. It’s designed to help cancer patients connect with friends and family, ask for support when needed, remember important information from doctors’ appointments and generally stay organised in a way that works for them.  

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Date of preparation: September 2020

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