Has cancer had its time in the spotlight?

Catrin Hughes

Has an historical focus on improving outcomes in cancer been at the expense of other conditions, and what does this means for communicating about a condition one in two of us will experience?

New polling conducted by MHP shows that Members of Parliament believe other conditions should be taking the place of cancer on the Government’s list of health priorities. To explore this new research in detail, please contact our health team.

The number of people living with cancer in the UK is expected to rise to four million by 2030, but the days of a cancer diagnosis being an automatic death sentence are long gone.

Yet while nearly 45% of MPs think cancer will remain the Government’s top priority until the next general election, only 4% of MPs polled think it should be.

By comparison, half of MPs believe mental health should sit as the Government’s main health focus.

When the purse strings of the NHS are tighter than ever and Brexit is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, how do we make an impact when the assumption is that cancer has had its time in the spotlight?

Have we come far enough on cancer outcomes?

Cancer sits firmly within Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s agenda of prevention and early diagnosis, with the NHS Long Term Plan featuring a commitment to increase the proportion of cancers diagnosed early, from a half to three quarters.

Latest data suggests that, in some cancers, those diagnosed at an early stage have the same survival chances as the general population. But has this been at the expense of other conditions?

Despite years of warm words about parity of esteem in mental health, government commitments do not seem to be having an impact for patients. In their report, Progress of the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health found that ‘as demand has increased, gaps have been exposed’.

Whilst acknowledging the need to improve outcomes for other conditions, still further progress is needed with cancer.

Ultimately, if someone receives a diagnosis of cancer they are unlikely to be interested in the specific priorities of Government but instead want to feel secure in knowing that the systems are in place to ensure they have the best chance of surviving, or living well with, cancer.

UK survival rates still lag behind Europe and other countries around the world and rates vary hugely for different types of cancer. Less than 1% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will survive ten or more years, while 78% of breast cancer patients will survive for this period.

So how do we continue to call for improvements in care, when there is a risk those listening are suffering from ‘cancer fatigue’?

We need to widen the debate and do more to identify alignments between cancer and conditions where the political ‘eye of sauron’ is currently focused. Communications efforts could therefore leverage conversations around mental health to focus on what this means for people living with cancer – data shows only 53% of cancer patients said that they found someone on the hospital staff to talk to about their worries and fears – and, by extension, cancer outcomes more widely. As patients live with cancer in the longer-term, alignments can also be drawn with other chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Another way to achieve cut-through could be to focus on the possibilities presented by the changing treatment landscape. The shift towards genomic medicines and immunotherapies puts us at a defining moment for the personalisation of cancer treatment. This is a time in history for cancer worth putting your name to.

Finally, cancer can no longer be considered as one condition or even a single tumour type, as we move towards cancers being described by their molecular structure. We must ask policymakers to respond to this new way of understanding and treating cancer.

It has never been more difficult to be heard in the health landscape and it is only through adapting our approach that we will stand a chance.