This past weekend marked one year since the death of Dame Tessa Jowell. Tessa, who received her brain tumour diagnosis just 12 months before her death, was a much-loved and figure of strength for many cancer patients. Her story is one that we hear echoed by many families across the UK, who shoulder the hardship of a cancer diagnosis whilst trying to maintain normal life.
Brain tumours are one of the cancers with the lowest survivability rates in the UK. They are part of a group of six deadliest cancers, known as ‘less survivable cancers’ as they have the lowest survivability rates, the others being stomach, oesophageal, lung, liver and pancreatic cancer. What these six cancers sadly have in common is they are just as deadly as they were 40 years ago, even though over that time period we have seen some cancers make remarkable progress in survivability.
70,000 people are diagnosed with one of the less survivable cancers every year and together, they are responsible for half of all common cancer deaths in the UK. Crucially this means that patients diagnosed with a less survivable cancer often feel left behind because the research infrastructure to effectively treat their condition is not in place. In response to this, a coalition of six charities, representing each of the less survivable cancers, set up the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce.
The Taskforce’s mission is to bring attention to these cancers and the historic failure to improve their survival rates. Despite Tessa’s incredible story, there has been lack of public awareness which still exists today. Delays in diagnosis caused by unawareness of symptoms have a detrimental effect on survival of these rapidly advancing diseases. And unfortunately, a lack of awareness means less pressure on those who are in the positions to make a difference by prioritising education on and research into these cancers.
Another major reason behind failure to increase survival rates for the six cancers is the lack of research funding which they attract. Between 2007 and 2016, the less survivable cancers received a fifth of the research funding received by the more survivable cancers.
And so here we have the vicious cycle that the less survivable cancers suffer from. Poor survival outcomes lead to fewer researchers and fewer funders focusing on these cancers. This leads to fewer positive research outcomes and continued low levels of survival, which in turn leads to even fewer researchers and less funding. So we come full circle and we don’t move forward. To break this cycle, we would like to see the government leading the way by encouraging researchers to focus on less survivable cancers to develop ground-breaking discoveries which would benefit patients throughout the UK.
The taskforce has called for 28by29 - doubling the survival rate for the six less survivable cancers from 14% to 28% by 2029. Achieving this improved survival rate would save an additional 10,000 lives a year in the UK. It would also importantly give families, hope that their cancer diagnosis was not effectively a death sentence.
While we welcome the government’s plans to improve early diagnosis of cancer and make genomic testing more widely available. The Taskforce feels the NHS Long Term Plan missed a crucial opportunity to make a commitment to specifically drive improvements in outcomes for the less survivable cancers. We are hopeful that our cancers will benefit from the delivery of the plan, but we are clear that we would like to see more meaningful, substantive and equal action against all cancers.
To break this cycle, we’d like to see government leading the way by encouraging researchers to focus on the less survivable cancers and by adopting an ambition for survival such as the taskforce’s ambition of overall survival of 28% by 2029. Not just warm words but action, because by setting a strategic goal for tackling less survivable cancers, the government could also encourage other funders, from charities to pharmaceutical companies, to invest in the area.
A year on from Tessa’s tragic death the prospects for sufferers of a less survivable cancer remain largely unchanged. The taskforce however remains determined to ensure that no-one diagnosed with a brain, liver, lung, oesophageal, pancreas or stomach cancers feels written off by their diagnosis. By spreading awareness about the less survivable cancers and working together, we can create meaningful change that can save lives.
Anna Jewell is chair of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce