This week, in the lead up to Sunday’s World Cancer Day, we have unsurprisingly seen a great number of headlines about the disease. They have painted a mixed picture about breast cancer in this country.
We’ve welcomed fantastic news - Perjeta, a truly life-changing drug for patients with HER2-positive breast cancer was approved by NICE for routine NHS use in England and Wales.This long-awaited victory means that women with incurable metastatic breast cancer could be offered over four and a half years to live – nearly 16 precious extra months with their loved ones compared to existing treatments.
And we’ve seen the impact of decades of tireless breast cancer research in reports that breast cancer mortality rates have fallen by 10 per cent in five years. In 2015, 35 women out of every 100,000 in the UK died from breast cancer, compared to five years before when the figure was 39 women per 100,000.
For many years it would have seemed inconceivable, but breast cancer is now no longer the third biggest ‘cancer killer’, with the number of men dying from prostate cancer each year overtaking the number of women dying from breast cancer.
The extraordinary progress in awareness, diagnosis and treatments that has led to this is to be celebrated this World Cancer Day. It has changed lives and it has saved lives.
But it’s not all good news and it would be dangerous to consider breast cancer as being fixed, a problem solved. One in eight women in the UK will still face breast cancer in their lifetime. Every 45 minutes, another woman dies from the disease.
Those who have been diagnosed, who have a loved one with breast cancer or who have lost someone close to them to the disease – and there are a lot of us - know just how devastating it is.
In fact, the overall picture for cancer in the UK is extremely concerning; we saw this week that we rank just 26th out of 63 countries in breast cancer survival rates. This is despite the government’s ambition to deliver ‘world class cancer outcomes’ and catch up with other international rates of survival.
There are many reasons we’re falling behind. Numbers of women attending screening in England have now fallen to the lowest rate in a decade; the proportion of UK women taking up routine breast screening invitations fell to just over 71% in 2016-17. We know that breast screening and early detection prevents deaths from breast cancer so this is an extremely worrying finding which simply cannot be allowed to turn into a long-term trend.
There could be a number of possible explanations for women not attending screening, including concerns about the risks of screening, difficulties in attending the appointments, or worries about being diagnosed with breast cancer. We urgently need to understand better the reasons for this decline.
And although the news on Perjeta shows that robust deal-making is possible and can achieve real value for money for the NHS and taxpayer, we’re not seeing this across the board. Perjeta has been rejected three times in a row in Scotland, so it’s time for the Scottish Government, Roche and the Scottish Medicines Consortium to urgently come back together to find a solution for Scottish patients.
Other areas for concern are that waiting time targets – which outline how quickly women are diagnosed and treated – are being missed, there are serious staffing shortages in the diagnostic workforce, and when it comes to extending and saving lives with innovative treatments, not all breast cancer patients have access to the drugs that they so desperately need.
It has been a week to reflect on the state of breast cancer – and all that still needs to be done to stop women dying of this devastating disease. The fact is, despite the incredible progress research has made, this progress is stalling. We simply cannot afford for it to grind to a halt.
We are extremely grateful for the continued support of our dedicated and passionate supporters who are helping to make life-saving research happen. This World Cancer Day it is more important than ever that we continue to invest in research to stop women dying of cancer in the UK. And that if we all act now to make sure the good news outweighs the bad.
Baroness Delyth Morgan is Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer charity.