Wales must make tackling cancer a greater priority

A leading specialist has said.300 more patients might survive cancer each year in Wales if services performed to the European average. That could be an estimated 600 lives saved if Wales ranked with the best.

Tom Crosby, medical director of the Wales Cancer Network, said there needed to be "a relentless drive to diagnose cancers earlier". He wants the way services are delivered to be transformed or he fears they could "break" and "fall over".

Dr Crosby, who is a consultant oncologist, said cancer services in Wales were already struggling to cope and with the number of people with the disease predicted to double by 2035 it could become more and more difficult to close the performance gap.

Wales has some of the world’s leading cancer researchers, many of whom are developing game-changing therapies and cutting-edge technologies to fight the disease, yet we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of having some of the worst survival rates in the developed world.

For instance, scientists in Cardiff have developed two anti-cancer drugs in recent years – one of which was proven to stop breast cancer in its tracks. That Wales itself is not itself yet benefitting from these breakthroughs is not just illogical, it's unjust and amounts to a kick in the teeth to Welsh breast cancer patients.

Admittedly there have been improvements in cancer care in recent years, but these have been hampered by Welsh Labour's record-breaking cuts to the health budget which have resulted in patients waiting too long for diagnostic tests and not getting access to treatments they need.

A study by Bristol University found that Welsh patients are seven times less likely to be able to access modern cancer drugs than their counterparts in England, and as a result some patients have had to raid their life savings or relocate across the border to access the treatment which is available routinely in England. Simply, the current situation is a scandal of epic proportions.

There is no doubt that we need to make tackling cancer a greater priority and to establish a Cancer Patients' Fund in Wales to improve patient outcomes. Such a fund would put an end to the current postcode lottery which patients and their families face by levelling the playing field between Wales and other parts of the UK in terms of the availability of modern life-transforming cancer drugs and radiotherapy treatments.

The scale of the crisis facing cancer care in recent years also highlights the need for Wales to appoint a Cancer Patients’ Champion - a single individual responsible for championing the corner of patients, highlighting good practice, identifying problems and helping to hold the Welsh Government and Health Boards to account for delivering their promises on cancer care. This Champion could also play a critical role in raising awareness of cancer, its causes, and treatments.

We also need an independent review of the Welsh NHS’ service delivery conducted by a select panel of experts who can develop an innovative plan to drag our health service into the 21st century. It cannot be right that countries from the former Eastern bloc rank ahead of us on so many indicators.

For too long the Welsh cancer services have suffered from underinvestment and under performance. It's time that cancer patients here received the treatments and services their clinicians advise them that they need when they need it.

It's wrong that so many cancer patients in recent years have had to battle the Welsh NHS for timely access to modern treatments when patients elsewhere in the UK have been getting automatic access.