We can do better than “get back to normal”

23 June 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on long-standing problems within cancer services. Our chief executive Dr Kathryn Scott looks at what needs to happen to not only get cancer services in Yorkshire back to normal, but make them better than ever before.

As we slowly emerge from the restrictions on our lives caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s an opportunity to reflect not only on what’s happened, but on what should happen next.  

COVID-19 has highlighted problems existing within cancer services long before the pandemic that we were working hard to tackle including significant inequalities across the region.

Great opportunity

But although the capacity of the NHS has been stretched like never before, there have also been many examples of innovations and changes which have made health services more efficient and served patients better.

There’s now a great opportunity to change cancer services in a way which builds upon the openness to innovation shown during the pandemic. To address the long-standing challenges in cancer services once and for all, it is not enough to get cancer services “back to normal” – we can (and must) do better than this.

Earlier this year, on behalf of Yorkshire Cancer Research I co-signed a statement from more than 40 cancer charities – collectively called One Cancer Voice. We are urging the government and NHS leaders to take action to improve cancer services for good.  

Many of the recommendations made by One Cancer Voice overlap with Yorkshire Cancer Research’s own priorities and activities. As a charity, we believe the proposals outlined in the statement can help improve cancer diagnosis and treatment for people in Yorkshire.

Tackling the backlog

The pandemic has caused a huge backlog across all health services that must be urgently addressed. Between April and December 2020, it’s estimated that more than 3,500 people in Yorkshire were not diagnosed with cancer who should have been. Many of these people will be living with cancer right now without knowing it and may have their cancer diagnosed later than it should have been. The worst-case scenario is that all these people are diagnosed with cancer only once it becomes an emergency, rather than earlier through screening or awareness of symptoms which could be cancer.

Driving faster and early diagnosis

As the ‘lockdown’ continues to lift, we must encourage everyone with any potential cancer symptoms to contact their GP without delay. Yorkshire Cancer Research is funding a range of local awareness campaigns and services across the region. For example, through our Cancer Wise Leeds programme, ‘cancer champions’ are working on the ground to find new ways to encourage more people to contact their GP with cancer symptoms and take part in screening - something that we plan to roll out to the rest of the region.

We’re also funding Check Your Lungs in Hull, which is working in communities and with GPs to increase early diagnosis, and later this year, we’ll be launching a lung cancer awareness campaign in other parts of Yorkshire. As part of One Cancer Voice, we’ve called on policymakers to fund evidence-based health campaigns to build confidence among the public that GPs and screening services are ready to see them – like the recent ‘Help Us Help You’ campaign.

We must also drive earlier and faster diagnosis by radically reforming how diagnostic services are delivered. At Yorkshire Cancer Research, we’ve been rolling out the Leeds Lung Health Check programme, offering CT scans to people across the city to help diagnose cancer earlier when it’s easier to treat. If successful, this project could lay the foundations for a new national lung cancer screening programme.

Preventing cancer

As the number of people being diagnosed each year continues to rise, we also need bold measures to help prevent cancer from developing in the first place. There are steps we can all take to reduce our own risk of cancer. But we must acknowledge the role governments (both national and local) can play in reducing the number of preventable cancers.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable cancer, and Yorkshire has one of the highest rates of smoking in England. We’re testing innovative solutions and funding pioneering research to find the best ways to support people to quit successfully. However ultimately, local public health services need more funding to help implement solutions that work for local communities. We can fund programmes which provide the evidence to show that new innovations work but the state must take on the responsibility of turning it into standard practice. This is why we are also calling upon the Government to make it a requirement by law that tobacco manufacturers finance a Smokefree 2030 Fund, to pay for the measures needed to end smoking.

Making a full recovery

We can also help people make a full recovery from cancer by ensuring better results from treatment through groundbreaking services. There’s now evidence that cancer recurrence can be prevented by ensuring people have access to personalised exercise programmes. We’ve recently announced funding for a new exercise programme for people with cancer in Sheffield that aims to improve cancer treatment, minimise the length of time spent in hospital, reduce the chances of complications from surgery, and in some cases, reduce the chance of the cancer returning at a later date. This is something we are looking to roll out across Yorkshire, so more people can benefit from a prescription of physical activity.

Research is at the heart

Underpinning all of these developments is research. Last year we funded two-thirds of all recruitment to clinical trials in Yorkshire. Our region is one of the best locations for medical research in the whole country, and we want Yorkshire to keep that status. Research will bring benefits to patients in the future, but the knowledge and expertise it creates also benefits people today; cancer patients in hospitals with a high level of research have a better chance of survival. The charity’s clinical trials help bring the latest research ideas and innovations to Yorkshire, so patients here can be among the first to benefit.

We'll continue to invest in these trials to ensure Yorkshire people get access to latest innovations in treatment. But we also need to see more investment in research from the government, particularly following the pandemic, which has had an immediate and devastating impact on medical research charities, resulting in an estimated 37% decrease in their research spend over the next year. We strongly support the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) #ResearchatRisk campaign, which is calling for the Government to commit funding to help protect the future of charity research through the pandemic and as we recover.

Thank you to our supporters

Finally, the work that Yorkshire Cancer Research is funding would not be possible without our amazing supporters. The team and I have been humbled by the support we’ve received during the pandemic, most recently with our ‘Tour de Walkshire’ campaign, which has seen nearly 1,000 people raise more than £120,000 for life-saving research.

With your support, we can save lives by creating better cancer services in our region. I don’t underestimate the amount of hard work that will be needed. But we have an opportunity now to transform cancer in Yorkshire, and we must take it.

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