Cancer in children, teenagers and young adults is thankfully rare. However, whilst rare, every day in the UK 12 children and young people under the age of 25 are diagnosed with cancer. The rareness of childhood cancer also causes problems for early diagnosis and therefore for treatment and survival rates: it is so rare the medical practitioners may well only see a few cases in their professional lives, and therefore not spot the potential for cancer in symptoms, failing to refer a child on for specialist assessment at an early stage.
Today, I spoke about this in a House of Commons debate on cancer diagnosis and workforce. I did so in my role as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children, Teenagers and Young Adults with Cancer (APPG CTYAC).
Last year the APPG CTYAC held a Parliamentary inquiry into children’s and young people’s experiences of cancer (‘Listen Up! What Matters to Young Cancer Patients’). We made several recommendations to the government for how signs and symptoms could be picked up sooner, leading to early diagnosis and saving more children’s lives.
One recommendation is training for General Practitioners (GPs) and other healthcare professionals to spot symptoms and know when to refer for specialist assessment. CLIC Sargent and Teenage Cancer Trust have developed an e-learning module which could help here. Another is to provide education, in age appropriate ways, to help children and young people prevent cancer and understand signs and symptoms – something which the Teenage Cancer Trust has pioneered.
I was pleased that the government has included specific consideration of children and young people with cancer in their NHS Long Term Plan, published yesterday. However, there is no mention of prevention or early diagnosis. I also have concerns that the NHS will not have the resources needed – the evidence is that day-to-day spending is being cut in real terms by £1 billion next year. Brexit is putting the NHS under further pressure, as staff leave the UK at a time of 100,000 vacancies, and the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a deal puts the supply of medicines and instruments at risk.
Cancer Minister Steve Brine MP responded positively today – he agreed to meet with the APPG CTYAC to discuss our recommendations in more detail and to write to me with specific responses to my questions. I will be holding him to the recommendations in our report but also urging him to focus more on prevention and on ensuring the Treasury reverses cuts to public health services to help with this.
There are huge challenges for our health and our health service in the 21st Century. Improving the abilities of healthcare staff to diagnose cancer earlier in children, and supporting the prevention of cancer through education and other public health work could be put into practice now, and save many lives in the future.
Read the full debate here, or see a clip of my speech below.