PUBLISHED ON: 22 July 2015

A new strategy for cancer in England was launched on Sunday 19 July by the Independent Cancer Taskforce. It’s a bold new roadmap for the future of cancer services and comes with big ambition. If the recommendations in the report are implemented and its ambitions realised, the Taskforce estimates that 30,000 additional patients will survive cancer by 2020.

As Harpal Kumar, chair of the Independent Taskforce, rightly pointed out, there is no one thing that will ‘fix’ cancer, so the report has six strategic priorities which should be focused on over the next five years. 

We’ve taken a detailed look at the strategy and outlined what we see as some of the most important points. 

A strong focus on quicker diagnoses and improving survival

There’s recognition that cancers can, and should, be diagnosed earlier. We know that when it comes to cancer, early detection can make all the difference, so the report recommends that the time it takes from GP referral to communication of results (whether the person has cancer or not) should take a maximum of four weeks. Breast Cancer Care knows that this will go some way in helping reduce some of the anxiety that so many people feel while waiting to find out if they have breast cancer and it’s a recommendation we very much welcome.

Hospital sign

There’s also a recommendation which supports patients to self refer for a first investigative test, via a nurse telephone service. This would be in cases where a patient has a ‘red flag’ symptom, for example, a breast lump.

We know that, for secondary (metastatic) breast cancer, GPs don’t always recognise the symptoms of breast cancer spread and people are often referred to other services to have their symptoms investigated, for example, a physiotherapist if they have constant back pain. There’s reference (although not a recommendation) for NHS England to incentivise GP practices so that patients who have previously had cancer are quickly investigated again if they turn up to their GP with symptoms which could be cancer.

Importance of patient experience

There’s a desire to put patient experience on a par with clinical effectiveness. This is more than a step in the right direction - it’s a massive leap! The focus on online access to test results and treatment records being made available to patients is one we welcome, undoubtedly helping patients to feel more in control of their treatment and far better informed. There’s also a strong focus on the use of digital technologies and the development of smartphone apps to support patients in making decisions and to drive improvements, for example, in the coordination of care.

Crucially, there’s also the recommendation that all patients should have access to a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) or other key worker to help coordinate care. From feedback from our own service users, we know how valuable a CNS is in helping navigate the NHS maze. This is felt even more acutely by those with secondary breast cancer whose needs are often more complex. Yet we know that many secondary breast cancer patients don’t have the support of a dedicated breast care nurse or keyworker who can help coordinate their care (and provide vital emotional support while doing so). Breast Cancer Care has campaigned for a while on this very issue so it’s great that it’s recognised in the strategy, giving us another vital lever to drive forward change. It’s crucial that those with secondary breast cancer get the same level of support as those with a primary diagnosis.

Living with and beyond cancer

The strategy highlights that some progress has been made in developing support for people living with, and beyond, cancer, but acknowledges that there’s still much that needs to be done. The strategy calls for every person with cancer to have a range of information and support including:

  • a holistic needs assessment and a written individualised care plan
  • information on the likely side effects of treatment and how best to manage them
  • information on signs and symptoms of recurrence
  • a cancer care review with a GP
  • a treatment summary.

For secondary breast cancer patients, there is also important attention given to the area of palliative care; an important issue and one we raised awareness of last year for Secondary Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

Preparing for the future

There’s also detail on:

  • the need to modernise cancer services
  • dealing with gaps in the workforce (particularly in areas such as oncology, radiology and specialist nursing provision)
  • updating out-of-date equipment
  • overhauling processes so that the quality of treatment and care is more consistent across the country.

In addition, there’s a strong emphasis on improving public health to help reduce the number of future cancer cases, including continued investment in the Be Clear on Cancer campaign and giving patients advice and information to help reduce the chance of secondary cancer.

The strategy is an unflinchingly visionary document that clearly lays out what needs to happen over the next five years. But in order to achieve the government’s commitment to being a world-leading cancer service, two things need to happen - and fast. The government needs to commit the money needed so that this strategy really can become reality. And alongside this we need detailed action plans that set out how the recommendations translate into tangible and positive change for patients. Without these two things there is a fear that the strategy could just become a dusty document sitting on desks up and down the country. Nobody wants that to be the case, so now really is the time for action.

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