Cancer is fast, but so often our response is far too slow. I’ve spent almost 50 years trying to improve cancer services and access in the UK, succeeding in some areas but failing in others. COVID-19 and the restrictions which followed have placed an unprecedented need for cancer diagnosis and treatment to be supercharged. I’ve been extremely vocal with my warnings about the looming cancer crisis and I’m sad to say it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
The relentless nature of cancer means that it will take many years before the full damage reveals itself. When COVID is long gone, we will still be dealing with devastating effects of the cancer crisis.
So what can we do? I’ve spoken at length about awareness issues, so I want to focus on the treatment side. Never before have we faced a cancer emergency like this, so the powers that be need to start thinking outside of the box. Embracing precision radiotherapy techniques like Proton Beam Therapy would help.
Alongside Mike Moran, I helped to bring and develop the UK’s first Proton Beam Therapy network at Rutherford. Back in 2008 I could see that plans to bring PBT to the UK were heading for disaster, it was nowhere near ambitious enough.
Recent research from European countries show that there should be around a 10-15% conversation to PBT from traditional radiotherapy. Across the Atlantic that number is as high as 20%, in the UK we are languishing at around 1%. To follow our European neighbours, we would need around 15-20 centres. Currently there are three operational centres in our Rutherford network (with a fourth on the way) and one NHS centre at the Christie and work ongoing at another in UCLH. We have fallen significantly behind and it’s the patients who will suffer the most.
The technology itself is impressive. It directs beams of protons specifically at the tumour which release their cell-killing energy directly at the tumour, which means many surrounding cells are spared from any damage. This can lead to significantly fewer side effects and a much higher quality of life for patients. There’s no denying that it is more expensive than traditional radiotherapy, however for certain cancers it is certainly worth it.
To prevent the UK falling even further behind we need urgent policy change. Every day I see the benefits of PBT and if we are to tackle the cancer crisis with the vigour that is required, we should be embracing technology with the proven benefits of PBT.