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Professor Karol Sikora
"Cancer services have never had the proper investment"
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National Cancer Director Professor Mike Richards
"At the moment we do not have enough specialists"
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Thursday, 9 December, 1999, 08:50 GMT
Expert damns government cancer drive
An expert says the government should be spending much more

A leading figure in international cancer research establishment has launched a devastating attack on government policy.

Professor Karol Sikora, former head of the World Health Organisation's cancer programme - and a member of a forum which advises ministers - says the strategy amounts to "little more than window dressing".

The waiting list to begin radiotherapy in many parts of the country is three months - and that's ridiculous
Professor Karol Sikora
Talking to the BBC, he said that the 10m pledged by the government to ensure all women with suspected breast cancer are seen by a specialist within a fortnight was a "drop in the ocean".

The real priority, he said, was to improve the treatments offered to patients.

He said: "It's all about PR. There is nothing wrong with being seen quickly but there is no evidence that this is the problem in the UK at the moment.

"It's not a case of delays in getting treatment - the reason is the quality of care once diagnosis is made."

The government has pledged to extend the two week specialist deadline to other types of cancer.

Its public health strategy, unveiled earlier this year, sets the tough target of reducing deaths from cancer by a third by the year 2010.

Professor Sikora, who is the Visiting Professor of Cancer Medicine at London's Imperial College, accused the government of ignoring the advice of the National Cancer Forum, which was set up specifically to help ministers shape policy.

"It's just not listening to its own experts," he said.

'Investment needed'

He highlighted a shortage of 500 cancer specialists, a 1.2bn investment shortage in radiotherapy equipment and the the need for 170m more a year on chemotherapy treatments.

"It requires investment in radiotherapy, investment in cancer specialist training, investment in drugs.

Professor Karol Sikora: 'window dressing'
"The waiting list to begin radiotherapy in many parts of the country is three months - and that's ridiculous."

The UK fares badly when its cancer death rates are compared to those of other countries in Europe.

Professor Sikora has written to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Health Secretary Alan Milburn expressing his fears.

In the letter, he describes a set of referral guidelines recently sent out to GPs as "patronising", given the high level of training that the profession has undergone.

He also claimed that speeding up the referral of "obvious" cancer cases would cause extra delay for cancer patients whose symptoms were less obvious.

What we know at the moment is that many patients do experience very significant delays
Professor Mike Richards
However, Professor Mike Richards, who has been recruited by the government to lead its national cancer programme, said that change would take time.

"We all accept at the moment that we don't have enough specialists, but the government has committed extra resources to this.

"What we know at the moment is that many patients do experience very significant delays, sometimes running into months - and this could affect survival."

He said that much of the 40m government money designated to improve overall cancer services would be spent on training new specialists. The government has diverted hundreds of millions of pounds in lottery money to pay for new cancer scanners and radiotherapy machinery.

It is also fast-tracking decisions on the availability of cancer drugs such as Taxol and Taxotere, which are rationed by many health authorities.

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See also:
15 Feb 99 |  Health
Breast cancer fears torment women
15 Mar 99 |  Health
Cancer charities to split 150m
06 Jul 99 |  Health
Crusade on nation's health
15 Feb 99 |  Health
Huge variation in cancer survival rates

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