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Friday, 30 June, 2000, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Ministers face spiralling cancer costs

Hospitals are short of scanners and radiotherapy equipment
Cancers are becoming incurable because patients have to wait too long before starting treatment - or even getting a scan.

Researchers at the Beatson Institute in Glasgow looked at lung cancers, a disease in which, at present, the UK lags a long way behind some other developed countries.

It's within our power to begin to find ways to seriously improve survival rates

Dr Lesley Walker
Only 5% of patients here are alive five years after diagnosis, compared to 10% in the US, and it has been suggested that shortages of radiotherapy machines, scanners and staff may be contributory to this.

In Glasgow, the researchers found that some patients were waiting as much as four months for their radiotherapy to start.

To a fast-growing cancer like some lung cancers, a few months delay can make the difference between a small tumour which may respond to modern treatments, and one which leaves the patient in a hopeless situation.

The only use for radiotherapy then is to palliate the symptoms for the patient over the final few months.

Professor Gordon McVie, the director-general of the Cancer Research Campaign, and himself a lung cancer specialist, noted: "It is urgency that it is all about. Three months to someone who has six months to live is half their life."

But huge figures will need to be invested to make even a minute difference to UK cancer survival rates.

This is truly one area in which there is no quick fix, and certainly not one which can be measured in the election terms.

Competing interests

The government does have large sums to pump into the NHS, but there are plenty of competing demands on this - waiting lists and new expensive drugs in other specialties being the two prime examples.

So what needs to be done - and how much is the government already doing?

Professor Mike Richards
Tough task: Professor Mike Richards
The NHS has been short of equipment throughout at least the last couple of decades.

Traditionally the only way for many hospitals to get that new scanner was via a massive public fundraising project.

Consequently many of the scanners and radiotherapy machinery in our hospitals are hopelessly outdated, at a time when techniques are constantly improving, with the most modern machines able to deliver far more powerful doses of radiotherapy to tumours.

And these machines are few in number - in some parts of the country, there are waits at every stage for patients.

National Lottery

The government has so far allocated just under 200m to from National Lottery good causes money to pay for new equipment.

It has pledged that special CT scanners will all be less than 10 years old by 2004.

But experts have already condemned this as inadequate. Some figures put the equipment shortfall nearer 1.2bn.

And even if this money was made available tomorrow, it would still take some time to build and install the new machinery, altering hospital buildings where necessary.

As many as 500 new staff may also have to be recruited and trained.

It is clear that the government's national cancer director Professor Mike Richards appreciates the colossal task to reverse neglect of decades within NHS cancer services.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The total amount of funding we are putting in so far is about 200 million...but that won't be enough and we will need to do more to bring our stock up to the present day."

But that is just the start, and without even more money, the NHS would run out of puff simply catching up the rest of the world.

Keeping pace with clinical advances over the next decade, and the one after that, will also require massive investment.

Dr Lesley Walker, from the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "It's within our power to begin to find ways to seriously improve survival rates and we know that.

"The government really better be prepared for that."

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08 Mar 00 | Health
Lung cancer shame exposed
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