Patrick and other Cancer Research UK ambassador visited Boris Johnson in February 2020.
Dear Prime Minister,
In February I had the great pleasure of joining a small group of Cancer Research UK supporters to visit you on Downing Street to celebrate World Cancer Day.
I left with an extremely positive and elated feeling after hearing that you are committed to supporting the Government to improve cancer outcomes in the UK and in particular to improve early cancer diagnosis. Obviously we have seen some unimaginable changes and challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic since February, but this has shown us the tremendous importance of investing in research, public health and our NHS.
My passion for improving early diagnosis stems from my own experience with my wife, Pam, who was misdiagnosed three times before finally being admitted to the hospital through the emergency room. Pam was diagnosed with stage 4 incurable colon cancer. She died 12 months later, aged just 52.
Pam taught English in a high school and had a great love for literature. There was nothing she enjoyed more than spending time as a family with our two children. She had a great sense of fairness and justice, along with a wicked sense of humor and a great love of life, which was sadly taken from her too soon.
Pam’s death motivated me to volunteer for Cancer Research UK and campaign for better outcomes to prevent others from going through the same devastating experience.
I found it heartwarming to see the progress we have made in recent years. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, only a quarter of people with cancer survived for 10 years or more. Now it is a little more than half, but it could be so much better. About 450 people die from cancer every day. On March 16, 2007, Pam was one of those people. These numbers are not inevitable.
The Comprehensive Spending Review is an opportunity for a cancer reset to truly rebuild better and deliver on the government’s existing commitments. We are not asking for anything new, but simply for your government to fulfill its own manifesto commitments, including to “increase cancer survival” and “promote early cancer diagnosis”. The NHS long-term plan commits to detecting 75% of early-stage cancers by 2028, now just 8 years away.
When I heard of these commitments, I thought of Pam. If diagnosed early, she would have had a 90% chance of survival, but because she was diagnosed very late, she had less than a 10% chance. Although we don’t see such numbers in our daily news bulletins, many cancer patients die every day who could be saved. At the moment, no concrete steps have been taken towards these ambitions.
I now know that millions of people are behind on screening and testing, meaning thousands of essential early diagnoses miss out and unfortunately die needlessly. From my own experience I know the terrible tension of waiting between testing and diagnosis. The uncertainty, the fear, the fear and that ultimate feeling of loss of control and helplessness.
Many more stats could be quoted, but what should motivate us even more is the fact that behind every stat is a real person, a real family going through devastating and life-changing experiences. Pam had plans to travel with me in retirement, but they never materialized. She never saw her son graduate; she never attended her son or daughter’s weddings and more recently she has never experienced the joys of seeing her 3 grandchildren.
Simply put, this is about saving lives. It’s about more couples spending longer together, about families sharing those special occasions together, about grandchildren being spoiled by grandparents. It’s about people and about trying to help more people survive and live well with cancer.
I am regularly inspired by the many nurses, doctors, clinicians, scientists and researchers with their passionate commitment to improving cancer outcomes. Together with our political leaders, it is such a powerful force, making a difference and changing lives. I believe that with the NHS and our incredible research, the UK could and should be the best in the world when it comes to cancer survival.
Hopefully we can meet again someday to mark World Cancer Day as a disease of the past, and you, as Prime Minister who have taken steps towards this future. I’m sure that’s a world we all want our children and grandchildren to grow up in.
We’re counting on you to deliver on the commitments in your manifesto – to give the NHS’s cancer staff and life-saving medical research the funding it needs in the upcoming Spending Review so more lives can be saved.
Together we can beat cancer. Mr Johnson, please do not delay action again, we are counting on you.
PS: You may remember that I wasn’t the only one that day in February. There was a group of us – cancer survivors, researchers, campaigners, who gathered that day to talk about the change we needed to see. Here are some stories from others you’ve met, but you know there are millions of others out there too.
Lesley Daisley: “I don’t want anyone else to go through what Paul went through”
My husband Paul Daisley, the late MP, died at the age of 45 after his early stage colon cancer was missed. This resulted in 2 years of multiple surgeries, months in various ICUs, stomas, pain, lost hopes and a terminal diagnosis 6 months before his death. Due to the bowel cancer screening programme, which has been introduced over the past 20 years, there are still so many people here, with their loved ones. It is equally important that these programs continue and expand to cover a wider cohort of people.
I don’t want anyone else to go through what Paul went through. He had so much to live for and was just beginning his new adventure as an MP.
In the 17 years since his death, cancer information and awareness has grown tremendously. People are much more willing to talk about it now. It is no longer a taboo topic. We need this openness to be supported by early diagnosis programs for the full range of cancers. We all need to fight for better survival and quality of life for cancer patients.
Nicola Boyd: “Cancer is not waiting for us to get back on track, we must act now”
Delaying a cancer diagnosis can be the difference between surviving and saying goodbye to your loved ones. Knowing that my friend could have had a different prognosis while they waited for their palliative care, lying in a hospital hallway was a heartbreaking crisis that could have been easily avoided. An early diagnosis, supported by a strong NHS workforce, could have given us a very different result.
Early detection of cancer gives hope to people faced with a daunting diagnosis and can provide the opportunity for the best possible treatment and results. Those who work in the NHS helping people on their cancer journey are incredible, but it’s time to stop taking advantage of their altruism and make sure staff are fully staffed and equipped to beat cancer. Cancer is not waiting for us to get back on track, we must act now.
Karen Harrison: “I know how important it is to have enough staff to help families with cancer”
As a mother of a child with cancer, I know how important it is to have enough staff to help families with cancer. Josh was treated for years after being diagnosed with Wilms tumor just before his second birthday. His treatment lasted a year and a half. He needed chemotherapy, followed by 2 surgeries to remove one of his kidneys and part of his lung, then radiotherapy and more chemotherapy.
Josh is now 10 and we know how lucky we are to have him doing well thanks to cancer research and the NHS staff who treated him. We want to help other families undergoing treatment – and making sure they have enough staff to treat them is vital.”
Tony Selman: “My wife died of esophageal cancer, if she had been diagnosed earlier she might have been alive today”
In my life I have seen many family members, friends and acquaintances die of cancer, including my wife Marian and my sister. I have been self-diagnosed and successfully treated for cancer. I know the utter fear and misery that comes with a cancer diagnosis, and as a scientist I know that cancer can be beaten if enough resources are used, and it is for these reasons that I campaign relentlessly against cancer.
My wife died of esophageal cancer, if diagnosed earlier she would be alive today. A late diagnosis is responsible for the loss of many lives to cancer and only research and adequate funding from NHS staff will stop the disease.
Effie Grant: ‘Christmas was canceled when my sister was diagnosed with cancer’
December 2016, Christmas was canceled when my sister Jacqui was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. The shock and devastation – raw. She underwent several surgeries and battled infections. However, she was also very cheerful when she lost her hair and we joked about what color to dye what was left. Finally, she tried a combination of radiotherapy, immunotherapy and a targeted drug, theoretically to work. The reality was it was too late to work and sadly she passed away on 17th April 2018 leaving us a husband and 2 young teenagers.
My last conversation with her, she was on a ventilator. It was excruciating to watch each struggle to breathe. If she had been diagnosed earlier, I strongly believe she would be here today. Funding the necessary research and training staff for early diagnosis is imperative to give people the best chance of survival. I urge you to do what is necessary in this regard.