Henry Smith MP: It is vital we recognise the key symptoms of blood cancer earlier and save more lives
On World Cancer Day, Henry Smith MP writes that through earlier diagnosis, more personalised care and enhanced mental health backing, we can improve patient outcomes and ensure greater support before, during and after treatment.
Cancer can affect anyone at any time, with most of us having either been diagnosed or knowing someone close who has. World Cancer Day is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring patients have a greater chance of beating this disease in the future.
There are more than 100 different types of blood cancer, with around 240,000 people in the UK living with the condition. While there are differences between blood cancer and solid tumour cancers, the former is the UK’s fifth most common cancer, and the third biggest cancer killer.
Last month saw the publication of the NHS Long-Term Plan, outlining how the NHS will use its additional funding to address a whole range of healthcare issues, including a strong focus on cancer.
In November I led a House of Commons debate on blood cancer care where I called for earlier diagnosis of patients. This needs to include greater support for our GPs, who will see an average of eight cases of cancer each year, with just one of these being blood cancer. The Plan outlines the ambition that by 2028, three quarters of cancer patients will be diagnosed at an early stage.
The number of visits to a GP before a cancer diagnosis is significantly higher for blood cancer patients than for people with other forms of cancer. Someone with cancer will of course want to be diagnosed the first time they see their GP with symptoms. However, one in six blood cancer patients have to visit their doctor three or more times before diagnosis; the highest proportion among all cancer groups.
The Long-Term Plan recognises the frequency with which blood cancer patients all too often need to see their GP before being diagnosed, and I welcome the commitment to roll-out Rapid Diagnostic Centres. These will build on ten pilot models which have focused on patients demonstrating non-specific symptoms, who may have to go to their GP many times before being sent for tests.
It is vital that through these centres, and enhanced support for GPs to recognise the key symptoms of blood cancer such as fatigue, repeated infections and weight loss, we can see some blood cancers detected earlier leading to more lives being saved.
For people with cancer, these can mean that they will be able to start their treatment earlier.
Some 40,000 people are diagnosed with blood cancer in the UK each year. When dealing with such a large number, it is important to remember that behind every statistic there are individual patients with their own stories, questions and anxieties.
There are more than 27,000 patients in this country on ‘watch and wait’ – a programme of monitoring blood cancer patients with few or no worrying symptoms. They will not need treatment straight away, therefore they avoid becoming exposed to the side effects until it is absolutely necessary.
It is difficult enough dealing with cancer when you are going through treatment. But when you have cancer and your treatment is not starting – with perhaps no set date for it to commence – it can understandably be a distressing time.
Last month I was privileged to host the launch of Bloodwise’s ‘Hear Our Voice’ report, where a number of the charity’s patient ambassadors spoke about their own experiences of living with blood cancer. In particular, I was moved by one participant who said that while we are ‘winning the war’ in terms of clinical treatment, we are ‘losing the peace’ with regard to mental health support for patients.
I welcome the Long-Term Plan’s commitment to make cancer care more personalised by 2021. It is vital that blood cancer patients who are undergoing treatment, as well as those waiting for it to start, have access to personalised and psychological support which will go some way to mitigating the effects of a cancer diagnosis.
The Long-Term Plan reiterates that from this year, all children with cancer are to be offered whole genome sequencing, whereby the DNA sequence of a child’s cancer can be read and used to find the most effective treatment. The Plan also highlights the importance of CAR-T therapy; a new type of therapy which modifies a person’s infection-fighting T cells, to better spot and kill cancer cells. During Blood Cancer Awareness Month last September I raised the importance of this therapy at Prime Minister’s Questions, and I will continue to work to ensure more patients can receive such personalised treatments.
In the space of under half a century, 10 year survival rates for leukaemia, a common group of blood cancer, rose from seven per cent to 46 per cent. This figure among children is even more rapid, trebling to 81 per cent in the same period.
The Teenage Cancer Trust’s new report, ‘13-24 year olds with Cancer in England: Incidence, Mortality and Survival’, highlighted that the largest reduction in mortality between 2001 and 2015 has been in leukaemia.
Through earlier diagnosis, more personalised care and enhanced mental health backing, we can improve patient outcomes and ensure greater support before, during and after treatment.
Henry Smith is Conservative MP for Crawley and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Blood Cancer