Drastic changes to cancer treatment in the UK to have devastating effect on patients 4 Feb 2015 | Stephanie Prior

stethoscope and laptop

The New Year welcomed us with some significant changes in relation to cancer and treatment.

The Government’s Cancer Drugs Fund (‘the Fund) announced that 21 out of 84 current cancer treatments will be scrapped in an attempt to save £80 million. The savings are to be then used to introduce new cancer treatment programmes. While existing patients will continue to receive treatment with the 21 ‘axed’ drugs.

It is reported that the changes introduced by the Fund will affect as many as 8,000 cancer patients a year. This will have a devastating effect on patient treatment and will take away their chances of successful treatment. It is further reported that the changes will especially affect patients in more advanced stages of cancer.

Life prolonging treatments like Jevtana (for prostate cancer, giving at least extra 3 months of life, costing around £22,000 for a one off treatment), Zaltrap (for bowel cancer, giving at least extra 6 weeks of life, costing around £6,000), Halaven (for breast cancer, giving up to extra 5 months of life, costing around £10,000 for six months treatment), Yondelis (for ovarian cancer, giving up to extra 6 months of life, costing £57,000 for 18 months treatment) would not be prescribed to newly diagnosed cancer patients from March 2015.

While the costs of the above named treatment seems at first blush to be very high in comparison with the relatively small benefit in terms of time. The personal element to the extra time afforded to cancer sufferers and their family is priceless.

Another change introduced in 2015 relates to the method of referral for cancer diagnosis. A new (trial) NHS scheme will allow patient to self-refer for a test if they believe they have cancer symptoms. The aim of the scheme is to cut out the delays associated with GP referrals for tests. While it might be the case that it will be possible to eliminate the delay in being tested, this is likely to be only temporary. Self-referral might lead to over reliance on the service (and abuse) leading to long waiting lists for a test as well as significant increase in costs.

Furthermore, Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, Public Health England and the Royal College of General Practitioners will unite their powers and work on introducing significant changes to the cancer services in the UK focusing on prevention, diagnosis, treatment and mental support. This project came about as the UK cancer survival rates are amongst the worst in Europe (especially as far as lung cancer is concerned).

Last, but not least, the Department of Health has indicated that the proton beam treatment will be available in hospitals in London and Manchester from April 2018. This is good news.

Proton beam therapy is a type of radiotherapy that uses beams of protons (as opposed to high energy X-rays as in cases of traditional radiotherapy) for killing cancerous cells without damaging the surrounding tissue and organs or causing side-effects. This is because it is possible to operate protons more precisely in aiming the therapy at cancerous cells rather than using x-rays.

Once the beams of protons meet the cancerous cells, the proton beam stops at the cancerous cells without moving onto and attacking healthy tissue. Because of this special feature, the proton beam therapy is mainly used for treatment of brain cancer, cancer in the central nervous-system or eye cancer.

Proton beam therapy became very famous in the UK because of one little boy called Ashya King. Ashya had brain cancer (medulloblastoma) and when his parents did not see a future within the NHS in respect of his cancer treatment, they took him to Prague for proton beam treatment. Such treatment was not available in the UK. It was reported that Ashya reacted well to the treatment. However, his family did not return to the UK because of fears of prosecution (for removing Ashya from the NHS hospital without the treating doctor’s permission).

There is only one clinic in the UK offering proton beam therapy, the Douglas Cyclotron and it is for eye cancer only. It is also possible to apply for NHS funding for the treatment abroad, although the process might be long and complicated and the patient may even die before any such referral. However, once an application is made and supported by a consultant, there are good chances that it would be further approved for funding. Statistically, since 2008 around 75% of all referrals were approved for funding.

The introduction of proton beam therapy in 2018 would be a great step forward for cancer treatment in the UK. However, the burning question is why has it taken so long and why is the UK so far behind other European countries like Czech Republic where proton beam therapy has been available since 1992.

If you think that you have suffered substandard medical treatment or significant delay in diagnosis hospital or by a GP or other medical professional, you can contact Osbornes Medical Negligence department for a free and confidential conversation on 020 7485 8811.

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