Last week, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Breast Cancer (APPGBC) had an opportunity to highlight the action that needs to be taken on key issues facing people affected by breast cancer.
These issues included the calls we've been making for the Government to support breast cancer research, diagnosis and care in the upcoming Spending Review. Here is a summary of what was discussed.
A focus on secondary breast cancer
The APPGBC co-chair, Craig Tracey, opened the debate outlining the impact of COVID-19 on people with breast cancer.
Thanking the NHS for their efforts to treat and find ways to support cancer patients during the pandemic, the APPGBC chair spoke about the cancer recovery plan and need to look to future. He reminded other MPs that he hosted his first ever Westminster Hall debate in October 2015 on secondary breast cancer, and that nothing much has changed for patients living with this disease since then.
COVID-19 has made the need for change more urgent
He wasn’t the only MP frustrated with the slow pace of change.
Former Cancer Minister Steve Brine MP highlighted his dissatisfaction, saying, 'We needed to up our game pre-covid, and we certainly need to up our game post-covid, if we are not to be here in another 10 years having exactly the same conversations.
Tracey went on to focus on two key areas: the variation and lack of data on secondary breast cancer and the need for increasing access to Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs). This echoes the issues we mentioned in our Spending Review campaign.
The APPGBC chair said, ‘Without accurate figures for the number of people living with secondary, it is impossible for the NHS to plan and commission services effectively… Increasing access to Clinical Nurse Specialists is the biggest driver in improving patient experience. This is particularly true for secondary breast cancer patients.'
A discussion of clinical trials
Following the opening speech, several MPs contributed to the debate.
Robert Largan, MP for High Peak, expressed his concern about removing mobile breast screening units in his constituency. Meanwhile, Jim Shannon, MP for Strangford and DUP Health Spokesperson, highlighted how Northern Ireland has the highest mortality rate for breast cancer in the UK.
Shannon also discussed the importance of clinical trials, and showed his support for the Association of Medical Research Charities and Breast Cancer Now’s call for extra funding to prevent progress in research stalling.
Looking at the role of clinical trials in the fight against coronavirus, he said, 'What lessons can be learned from the speed with which trials for coronavirus have been set up? How can we apply that to setting up clinical trials for other health conditions such as secondary breast cancer? Perhaps coronavirus gives us an opportunity to look at trials—breast cancer trials in particular—in a different way. What good can we take from all of this?'
More funding is needed for breast cancer services
Imran Ahmad Khan MP and Kieran Mullan MP noted that almost one million women in UK missed vital breast screening due to COVID-19, and discussed the need for additional resources to deal with the screening and referral backlog.
‘Those who suffer from breast cancer should not be collateral damage in the battle against Covid,' said Khan.
Sir David Amess MP suggested that the new system of open invitations for screening appointments would need appointment reminders and letters from GPs urging women to attend to be successful. Amess then repeated Breast Cancer Now’s Spending Review call for additional funding for clinical nurse specialists.
Helen Hayes, Shadow Minister, then highlighted the inequalities that already exist in access to breast cancer treatment and screening, with Black, Asian and minority residents far more likely to end up with a late diagnosis.
Neale Hanvey, SNP Health Spokesperson, discussed the under-pressure workforce. 'It is important to acknowledge that staff in hospitals have been working incredibly hard throughout the pandemic, but there is only so much that we can squeeze out of them, and we cannot rely on a never-ending supply of goodwill and extraordinary resilience.'
Breast Cancer Now are also concerned about this, and have been calling for funding for recruiting and training more NHS staff in the Spending Review.
Listen to the charity sector
Justin Madders MP, Shadow Minister for Health and Social Care, responded to the debate by saying that many people may have missed the chance for an early diagnosis due to coronavirus measures.
He acknowledged the NHS long-term plan’s commitment that, by 2021 (just six weeks away), all patients (including those with secondary cancers) will have access to a CNS or support worker.
He also echoed our Spending Review calls for more funding for medical research charities, saying, 'We know that there is a great deal of concern in the sector, there was some support announced by the Government back in April but, that falls well short… I hope the Government will listen to the sector.'
The government need to prioritise cancer services
Jo Churchill MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, also responded to the debate.
Churchill defended the clinical decisions made in March to protect people from coronavirus and said she understood the anxiety and uncertainty caused by delays and changes to cancer treatment. Talking about the second wave, she stated that the Government have made sure that cancer services have been prioritised.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State also said she was happy to work with the APPGBC on a secondary breast cancer audit, stating that although data is collected, better data is needed.
Concluding, Churchill said, ‘Like Breast Cancer Now, I personally want to see the eradication of breast cancer by 2050… this is possible and we can do better.’
We asked a number of our supporters to email their MPs and encourage them to attend the debate – so we’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who did.
It was also very clear that the MPs who attended the debate knew about the issues we have been campaigning on together as part of our Spending Review campaign. This is in no small part thanks to the thousands of our supporters who have emailed their MPs calling for action to be taken on key issues facing people with breast cancer.
If you haven’t already, you can support our Spending Review campaign in a matter of minutes by contacting your MP through us.