Why Can't Everyone Get Decent Cancer Treatment in This Country

Article excerpt


ACCORDING to the Royal College Of Physicians, Britons are dying through a lack of sufficient cancer specialists to treat them with chemotherapy.

If only that was the worst of it.

On a Thursday evening getting on for four years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer.

By Friday, I was back in the hospital lying under a scanner. By early the following week, I saw a consultant surgeon who specialised in my sort of cancer, was booked into an NHS hospital bed, spoke to an expert radio-therapist and was given a list of options which my treatment could take.

Apart from the diagnosis itself, none of this came as much of a surprise. After all, cancer is serious stuff. It kills people. It will probably, and despite all, eventually kill me.

It made perfect sense that the doctors, nurses, radiologists and ancillary staff should take the illness as seriously as I did myself.

I assumed that whatever well-publicised ravages the NHS had undergone in its various incarnations, cancer patients could still rely on it to do the decent thing when the cancerous crunch came.

As the treatment progressed, I started writing about it in the newspapers on the reasonable assumption that the treatment I was getting was much the same

as the treatment any man of my age with my condition would get.

I would write that a new tumour was suspected, and that I'd been sent for a scan two days after the suspicion was raised. Or once the scan turned out to be positive, that I'd been booked in for an operation to remove it a couple of days later.

I wrote that I was being considered for chemotherapy, and could also say I'd be seeing the oncologist the following week, and starting treatment shortly after that.

And then the letters started to arrive - letters from desperate cancer patients and their relatives asking how come I was getting such special treatment?

I was bewildered. What special treatment? I was getting the treatment a man with cancer needs. The treatment without which he will die.

But what do you know? It turns out that the treatment I'm getting really is special. Not, as it happens, because I'm a journalist or a BUPA subscriber, but because of the geographical accident which has me living in Notting Hill, West London, up the road from one of the world's best specialist cancer centres.

For God help you if you contract cancer and don't live there, too.

Imagine, for a moment, being a GP. A man comes into your surgery with a worrying lump, a persistent sore throat or one of the other symptoms which could be an early sign of cancer.

You tell him the possibilities, and that you'll have to refer him to a specialist. He needs to be scanned, a biopsy taken, tests run.

Except you know the earliest he's likely to be given a scan is in six months' time, and the waiting list for something as routine as a biopsy is just as long.

Moreover, you know that

if it is cancer, those six months can easily be the difference between life and death.

That isn't journalistic hyperbole: leave a cancer to its own devices for six months, and it can turn from operable to inoperable.

It doesn't matter how many oncologists are trained and waiting with drugs, if patients are waiting for that length of time, they can easily pass beyond the help of the most skilled medics. …