Cancer is one of the leading health concerns amongst the public. 1 in 2 of us will get cancer in our lifetime. So why are more people interested in getting a TV personality reinstated to our screens than ensuring cancer patients receive the treatment they desperately need?
A number of cancer treatments have just been removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund (12 March 2015) which will deny over 8,000 patients a year in England access to life extending or improving drugs. Last week the Huffington Post posted a blog written by cancer patient Simon Hawkins who set up a petition (https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/keepyourpromise) calling on David Cameron to pause the removal of cancer treatments and keep the promise he made to patients that he would "enable patients to access the cancer drugs their doctors think will help them". The petition has attracted just over 5,000 signatures. A petition in support of Jeremy Clarkson attracted more than 400,000 in less than a day. As a nation, we need to seriously re-think our priorities.
50% of us will be diagnosed with cancer during our lifetime so we all have a vested interest in how cancer patients are being treated now and in the future. Prior to the Cancer Drugs Fund being set up in 2010, we saw repeated cases of patients pleading for their lives through the media as they could not get new drugs if they were not deemed cost-effective for the NHS. To some this seemed a hard but reasonable approach, given that the NHS has limited funds and these drugs would "only" give patients a few more months of life at best. Cancer doctors, patients and charities knew that the truth was more complex. These new drugs would often lead to not weeks or months but in many case years of extra life and the quality of this life would be pain-free and infinitely better than the alternative life without them. That is why charities continue to fight so hard to make the case for a better approach.
The Cancer Drugs Fund was only supposed to be a temporary measure to provide cancer patients and their doctors with certainty that they would get new drugs of proven effectiveness. Everyone recognised that a long term solution was needed and we all awaited the publication of new proposals for this, called "value based pricing". Sadly this has never appeared and in the meantime the demands on the Fund grew because NICE continued to reject drugs. Yet there has been no review of why NICE continues to reject these drugs for funding on the NHS, despite the evidence that NICE's systems for deciding this are increasingly irrelevant to the new, targeted treatments that are becoming available.
The reality is that patients do live a lot longer than the clinical trials indicate. Simon is an example. Thanks to the Cancer Drugs Fund he was given a drug that according to NHS officials would only prolong his life by a few months. Simon is still here years later, very healthy and with a normal quality of life. The fact is that his treatment worked, and allowed him to go on and receive further treatments that also worked.
From 12 March patients like Simon will be refused funding for the same treatment with devastating consequences.
If the Fund is a sticking plaster then it was wrong to rip that plaster off and, by removing key drugs from its list, leave a gaping wound without a better alternative in place. Patients cannot afford for the system to give up on them. We need to ensure that the development of a new system is neither an exercise in controlling budgets on behalf of the NHS nor an exercise in maximising profits on behalf of the pharmaceutical companies but an exercise in what patients need from their care in the NHS.
We need to protect access to these treatments. We should not give up on cancer patients. You can show your support for the thousands of cancer patients who face a very uncertain future by signing the petition that should mean the most.