- International study shows that while British cancer survival has improved over the past 20 years the UK’s cancer survival rates lag behind the European average in 9 out of 10 cancers
- 10,000 cancer deaths could be prevented each year if the UK hit the European average
- Analysis shows that some British cancer survival rates trail that of developing nations such as Jordan, Puerto Rico, Algeria and Ecuador
- Since the inception of the NHS in 1948 policy makers and clinicians have viewed the problem as the NHS being under staffed and underfunded
- But the answers to the cancer care challenge in the UK are not that straight forward
- The world has changed and is changing while policy responses to challenges have remained static
UK cancer care lags that of other European nations: reasons and solutions
This Commentary is in 2 parts
Part 1 focusses on cancer care in the UK, but much of its substance is relevant to other advanced nations with aging populations and large and escalating incidence rates and costs of cancer. Before drilling down into cancer care in Britain we briefly describe the etiology of cancer, the epidemiology of the condition as it relates to the UK and other wealthy nations, mention immunotherapy as indicative of evolving and significant new therapies, which give hope to cancer sufferers. We then describe the CONCORD-3 study reported in The Lancet in 2018. This is a highly regarded and significant international study, whose findings are widely recognised as the “gold standard” of comparative cancer care. It reports that although 5-year cancer survival rates (the internationally accepted indicator of cancer care) have improved in Britain over the past 2 decades, the UK is still trailing that of most large European countries. We conclude Part 1 with a brief description of UK initiatives to close its cancer-gap with other European countries.
Part 2, which will be published in 2 weeks, is an analysis of the cancer-gap between Britain and other European countries. We suggest that for decades, healthcare providers, policy makers and leading clinicians have suggested that the UK cancer-care gap is because of the lack of funding and the lack of healthcare professionals. Since the inception of the NHS in 1948 a policy mantra of “more” has taken root among policy makers, providers and clinicians: predominantly, “more money”, “more staff”, and “the government should do more”. We suggest that, over the lifetime of NHS England, a combination of Britain’s economic growth, its historical ties with Commonwealth countries and, since 1973, the reduction of barriers to the flow of labour between European countries, has given UK policy makers a convenient “get-out-of-jail-card” because they could always provide more money and more staff. Over the past 2 decades, this option has become less and less effective because of a combination of the slowdown of world economic growth, the rise of emerging economies such as India, and more recently Brexit.
We conclude with some thoughts about why a significant cancer care gap has opened between the UK and other European nations, and briefly describe some UK initiatives to close the gap. We suggest that the world has changed quicker than the thinking of policy makers and quicker than structural changes in the UK’s healthcare system. Improving cancer care in the Britain will require more than inertia projects. It will require more innovation, more long-term planning, more courage from policy makers, more focus on actual patients’ needs rather than what we are simply able to provide. Since 1948, the healthcare baton in the UK has been with an establishment comprised of policy makers, providers and leading clinicians. Over the past 70 years this establishment has become increasingly entrenched in past and narrow policy solutions. It has failed because the world has changed while It has remained static. It is time that the healthcare baton is passed to people with less self-interest at stake, who are less wedded to the past, and understand the new and rapidly evolving global healthcare ecosystem.
The UK’s cancer challenge
While British policy makers and health providers appear keen to stress that trends in the 5-year cancer survival rates (the internationally accepted measure for progress against cancer) have improved over the past 20 years, there is an element of “economy with the truth” in what they say. The UK is being left behind by significant advances in cancer survival rates in other nations. Treatment for 3.7m UK cancer patients diagnosed since 2000 is struggling to progress, especially for people diagnosed with brain, stomach and blood cancers. Further, your chances of dying after being diagnosed with prostate, pancreatic and lung cancer in Britain is significantly higher than in any other large European nation. This is according to CONCORD-3, the largest ever international cancer study reported in the January 2018 edition of the The Lancet.
The emperor of all maladies
Cancer is the uncontrolled proliferation of cells. In his 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning book, ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’, Siddhartha Mukherjee, professor of oncology at Columbia University Medical School in New York describes cancer cells as, "bloated and grotesque, with a dilated nucleus and a thin rim of cytoplasm, the sign of a cell whose very soul has been co-opted to divide and to keep dividing with pathological, monomaniacal purpose." Cancer occurs when a cell starts to divide repeatedly, producing abnormal copies of itself, rather than dividing occasionally just to replace worn out cells. If the immune system fails to destroy these cells, they continue to reproduce and invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue. A number of forces can trigger these cell divisions, such as certain chemicals (carcinogens), chronic inflammation, hormones, lack of exercise, obesity, radiation, smoking, and viruses. ‘The emperor of all maladies’ is not just one disease. There are over 200 different types of cancer, each with its own methods of diagnosis and treatment. Most cancers are named after the organ or type of cell in which they start: for example, cancer that begins in the breast is called breast cancer. Cancer sometimes begins in one part of the body and can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems This process is known as metastasis.
A practitioners’ views
According to Whitfield Growdon, an oncological surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Reproductive Biology at the Harvard University Medical School, “Cancer is a complicated set of events, which can happen in any cell in your body. Your body is comprised of tiny cells, which have the ability to grow, stop growing and to re-model, which is necessary to do all the functions that are required for living. But every cell in nature has the potential to lose control of its growth. It is this uncontrolled growth of an individual cell, which we call cancer. Cells can grow, they can spread, and if the cell growth is uncontrolled it can invade other tissues, which can lead to you losing the ability to perform vital functions that are required for your life,” see video below:
There is scarcely a family in the developed world unaffected by cancer. But, this has not always been the case. Cancer only became a leading cause of death when we began to live long enough to get it. In 1911, the prevalence of cancer was low compared to what it is today. Then life expectancy in the UK was 51.5 and 52.2 years for males and females respectively. Similarly, in the US, at the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy at birth was 47.3 years. Today, the median life expectancy in the UK is 81.6 and in the US 78.7. Significantly, the age at diagnosis for prostate cancer today is 67 and 61 for breast cancer. Approximately 12% of the UK population are aged 70 and above and account for 50.2% of the total cancers registered in 2014. 87% of all cancers in the US are diagnosed in people over 50.