Government and NHS must ensure the long-term cancer plan explicitly addresses the needs of people affected by blood cancer

Posted On: 
11th September 2018

It’s not for nothing that blood cancer is often referred to as the hidden cancer. It doesn’t have anything like the public profile of prostate cancer or breast cancer, despite killing more people every year, says Gemma Peters, CEO, Bloodwise.

Gemma Peters, CEO, Bloodwise
Credit: 
Bloodwise

What would you think if I told you there is a cancer that one of 19 people in the UK will get at some point in our lives, is the UK’s third biggest cancer killer, and yet many of us know next-to-nothing about it?

It’s not for nothing that blood cancer is often referred to as the hidden cancer. It doesn’t have anything like the public profile of prostate cancer or breast cancer, despite killing more people every year. Since being at Bloodwise, the blood cancer research charity, I’ve been consistently surprised by how little public understanding there is.

The hidden nature of blood cancer is a real problem that has a negative impact on the people affected by it.

Firstly, they’re less likely to be diagnosed quickly. Recent research showed that half of people cannot identify a single blood cancer symptom, while over a quarter (27.7 per cent) of people with blood cancer have to visit their GP three times or more before being sent to hospital – higher than for any other type of common cancer. In comparison, the figure for breast cancer is just 3.8 per cent. This is important because being diagnosed late can mean worse health outcomes.

But it’s not just the public – blood cancer doesn’t have the same recognition among policymakers as other common cancers. Part of this is because of the different types of blood cancer – such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma – which are too often thought of as different cancers, rather than one.

This needs to change, because the 240,000 people living with blood cancer in the UK have different needs that need to be addressed.

For example, people with blood cancer are treated on haematology wards rather than oncology wards, which can mean they do not get the same level of information and support about living with cancer.

They also have specific psychological and emotional support needs. Many patients will live with their blood cancer as an incurable but manageable condition for the rest of their life, having treatment for many years. Others do not start treatment straight away – being put on “watch and wait” – and the sense of waiting for it to progress to the point where treatment is needed can lead to extra anxiety.

Above all, treatment for other types of cancer is improving through new surgical techniques, but the absence of a solid tumour in blood cancer means that progress in treatment is much more dependent on new drugs and therapies.

Blood cancer has been the hidden cancer for too long, but the good news is that this is starting to change. The recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Report on Blood Cancer has helped raise it up the political agenda. And last week, in response to a question the APPG’s Chair Henry Smith MP, Theresa May said blood cancer is an issue she wants to continue to raise awareness of, while Steve Brine, the Minister with responsibility for cancer, talked about the importance of raising awareness when he attended our Blood Cancer Awareness Month event in Parliament.

But while these are really welcome words, they now need to be backed up by action.

Together with representatives of other cancer charities, I am today meeting with Mr Brine and NHS England, and all of us will be making the case for blood cancer to be given a higher priority than it gets at the moment.

The first thing the Government and the NHS can do is to make sure that the forthcoming long-term cancer plan explicitly addresses the needs of people affected by blood cancer.

Not only would this help ensure these needs are front-of-mind as the NHS develops cancer services, but it would also be an important signal that, finally, the hidden cancer is being brought out of the shadows.