Bringing back normality for UK cancer care

All of us are breathing a sigh of relief at the now regular stream of news about COVID-19 cases and deaths falling across the UK.

The government has responded to this by easing the lockdown and launched the track and trace system to deal with any local flare-ups.  For most of us, being separated from our loved ones has been the most difficult part of this lockdown. The latest easing will go a long way to improving people’s mental and indeed physical health.

The lockdown, however, took a particular toll on cancer services and cancer patients. April saw a 70% drop in referrals and many Trusts were forced to suspend certain cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Many people were too afraid to visit their GPs or hospitals for potential cancer symptoms. The government and the NHS responded to this with an ‘open for business’ campaign to urge people not to ignore potential symptoms.

The latest easing of the lockdown restrictions should give people more confidence to get themselves checked if they think they have symptoms. Indeed, we have seen in our own network of Rutherford Cancer Centres that there has been an increase in patient enquiries for conventional and advanced cancer treatments. This is a positive sign and will allow the country to ‘return to normal’ in the ongoing fight against cancer.

Our Centres remained open throughout the peak of COVID-19 and we provided vital cancer services to patients, including making our facilities available to the NHS for cancer patients. We recently followed this up by entering into a framework agreement with the NHS Shared Business Services, which will allow us to provide cancer treatment services on-demand to any NHS Trust. Collaboration such as this between the public and independent sectors has been crucial in the fight against COVID-19 and now it will help us to return to some level of normality and claw back the lost ground to other serious diseases such as cancer.

Whilst the signs are positive, we still have a long way to go. We still do not know the full cost of this pandemic to cancer care and indeed to cancer patients. Many people have cancer without knowing it. The significant backlog in cancer diagnosis is now a mountain that we must overcome urgently, or our cancer services will remain stretched for months if not years to come.

We have made our considerable diagnostic and cancer screening infrastructure available to NHS Trusts throughout the UK and we hope to make a substantial contribution to the national cancer diagnosis effort that awaits in the coming weeks and months. This is the only way we can make up the ground we lost to cancer and ‘get ahead of it’ once more.

The last two months have shown that we can all pull together to overcome a major crisis. We may have to do something similar to deal with the surge in cancer patients. The sooner we do this the sooner we can return to normal.

By Mike Moran, chief executive officer, Rutherford Health.