Cancer Treatment Shames Britain

By Rogers, Lois | New Statesman (1996), January 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

Cancer Treatment Shames Britain


Rogers, Lois, New Statesman (1996)


If you think you might be going to get cancer, the best advice is to leave Britain as soon as possible. Despite official pronouncements to the contrary, the only European countries that offer a worse chance of surviving the disease are Poland and Estonia. The fact that one in three of us will eventually develop some sort of life-threatening malignancy makes it all the more scandalous that treatment here is still so poor.

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The issue is not as simple as funding. In addition to the spectacular increase in health service support--from [pounds sterling]34bn, when Labour came to power in 1997, to [pounds sterling]99.4bn now--cancer treatment received a huge dollop of extra money from the National Lottery. Rules requiring the NHS to be funded from taxation were waived so that some [pounds sterling]200m of lottery money could be spent on high-tech equipment to deliver better radiotherapy treatment across the country.

The idea was that British patients would at last have access to the latest generation of intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) machines that can kill cancer cells without also obliterating vast swaths of surrounding healthy tissue. Cancer sufferers would be spared the debilitating toxic after-effects of radiotherapy, which can leave them damaged and feeling ill. Now radiologists think the lottery money has simply been wasted. Although they have been assured that all the promised new equipment has been bought, try as they might, they cannot find out where all these machines have gone.

Last year, the government's own National Radiotherapy Advisory Group (NRAG) embarked on a "stock-taking" survey to unravel the mystery. Its report was completed some months ago, but has not been published, and no one can say when it will appear. The cancer doctors think it caused so much dismay in Whitehall that the government has simply decided not to let people know what it says.

I will tell you what is in it. The survey looked at the availability of radiotherapy equipment across the country. It says that British cancer patients get 25 per cent less treatment than their European counterparts--a crude but perfectly valid statistic, calculated by looking at the recorded number of "fractions", or doses, of radiotherapy that are administered and dividing that number by head of population. While Europeans "consume" 40,000 fractions of radiation per million of population per year, Britons receive only 30,000 fractions.

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