Yesterday's news that 70 per cent of people living with cancer also have at least one other long term condition is yet further confirmation that cancer is now a complex disease. And it is worrying news for a health and social care system which is already struggling to provide the cancer care that people deserve.
The statement of intent for a national cancer strategy in England is, then, a much-needed recognition of the changing and complex demands cancer presents to the NHS. With the number of people living with and beyond cancer now at 2.5 million in the UK and cancer no longer being simply about cure or death, our need for a fresh, coherent and more ambitious approach to improving the outcomes of cancer patients has never been greater.
The cancer strategy, which was announced by NHS England at the start of the year, will be a five-year action plan for cancer services that aims to improve survival rates and save thousands of lives. Ensuring that people are diagnosed with cancer earlier and get speedy access to top-quality treatment is absolutely critical to achieving this, but it should not become the sole measure of improvement. It is vital that the strategy drives enhanced experience of care and a better quality of life for people with cancer, whatever stage they are at. We need to shift the focus from just treating the disease to also supporting people to live healthy and fulfilled lives.
Because once people are diagnosed with cancer - in fact, even once people have been treated for cancer - they need help to get their lives back. It is common for people to experience long-term consequences of cancer treatment; at least one in four of the cancer population of people with cancer face poor health or disability after their treatment for the disease . And yet we know that a good quality of life is possible. A recovery package of key interventions to support people with cancer and more effective ways of managing follow-up can have positive outcomes for those with the disease. Importantly these can also address the large proportion of current NHS costs that relate to survivorship when treatment has finished. The implementation of the recovery package needs to be at the centre of the updated cancer strategy.
At the end of that cancer journey, at the end of life, there is also much to be done for people who die from cancer. We know that 73 per cent of people with cancer would prefer to die at home , but only 30 per cent are currently able to do so . Care at the end of life should be well coordinated and planned to enable that choice, and for this to happen we need to see a clear shift in care and resources from hospitals into the community. Free social care, to support people in everyday tasks in their own home, or to give respite to family and friends who act as carers, would be an important step to allowing people this last choice.
While this strategy is being developed, we mustn't forget that whatever the cancer diagnosis, the age of the person receiving it, where they live or the stage of their treatment, every person with cancer needs to be treated with dignity and respect. It isn't enough to treat someone with cancer as a set of symptoms rather than as a person - as one in five cancer patients said they had been in the 2014 Cancer Patient Experience Survey .
People with cancer should be treated with dignity and respect and here at Macmillan, we consider their experience to be just as important as their safety and clinical treatment. The strategy needs to reflect this, to ensure that every person diagnosed with cancer has their needs assessed holistically and services organised around their individual needs and those of their family. Giving patients a named Clinical Nurse Specialist in charge of their care is consistently linked to positive patient experience but there are still gaps in nurse and other specialist roles. This workforce challenge will need to be tackled by the strategy if we are serious about improving how people with cancer experience their care.
This cancer strategy for England provides a unique opportunity, a one-off chance, to make sure that people who are diagnosed with cancer, who live with and are treated for cancer, and those who die of cancer, are given the support they need. And this support needs to be available not only in hospital but particularly at home and in the community where they're spending most of their time.
We will continue to work with and on behalf of people with cancer to ensure that the strategy reaches its full potential. And we will keep asking all political parties, particularly whoever forms the next government, to commit to these three improvements that we know to be important to people affected by cancer: cancer outcomes that match the best in Europe - including support after treatment; access to free social care at the end of life; and compassionate care throughout the cancer journey.