Grieving parents join call for reform of NHS cancer services

Stevenage satellite engineer Jess Brady who died of cancer

Stevenage satellite engineer Jess Brady died of cancer, aged 27 - Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Brady

Powerful testimony provided by the parents of a Stevenage satellite engineer - who sadly died three weeks after a late cancer diagnosis aged just 27 - has helped shape a UK Parliament scrutiny committee's report calling for reform of NHS cancer services.

The highly critical report on cancer services in England was published by the Health and Social Care Committee on Monday, saying the absence of a "serious effort" by the Government to tackle gaps in the cancer workforce is jeopardising earlier diagnosis.

Earlier diagnosis is the most effective way of improving overall survival rates. For example, diagnosing bowel cancer at stage 1 means that 90 per cent of people will live for five years compared to just 10 per cent of people diagnosed at stage 4.

In the report, MPs raise the alarm on the damaging and continuing impact of the pandemic and warn of a real risk that gains in cancer survival will reverse.

The NHS is estimated to be short of 189 clinical oncologists, 390 consultant pathologists and 1,939 radiologists, and by 2030 will be short of 3,371 specialist cancer nurses, but the report says there appears to be "no detailed plan" to address these shortages.

The report welcomes a £2.3 billion investment in community diagnostic centres, but highlights that the commitment to invest in equipment must come with a commitment to invest in the people qualified to use it.

The committee's chairman, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, said: “Earlier cancer diagnosis is the key to improving overall survival rates, however progress is being jeopardised by staff shortages, which threaten both diagnosis and treatment.

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"The NHS is sadly not on track with its key objective to diagnose three-quarters of cancers early by 2028.

"If we fail to hit that target, the result will be that up to 350,000 people could miss a key early diagnosis that could save their life.

“We are further concerned at the damaging and prolonged impact of the pandemic on cancer services, with a real risk gains made in cancer survival will go into reverse."

The committee heard evidence from medical experts and witnesses, including the parents of Jess Brady, a satellite engineer at Airbus in Stevenage whose life was cut tragically short.

Jess's mum, Andrea, gave testimony to MPs about Jess's struggle "to be taken seriously" by her GP practice against the backdrop of the pandemic – eventually getting a diagnosis of stage 4 adenocarcinoma in her lungs, bones, spine and liver three weeks before her death.

Andrea raised particular concerns about the absence of face-to-face GP appointments, the lack of diagnostic tests and the "fragmented care" her daughter received.

Jess had begun to feel unwell in June 2020. "Time went on and during the next five months Jess contacted her GP practice on nearly 20 occasions," Andrea explained. "At her lowest ebb, it was really difficult for her to navigate the receptionists and try and receive any contact from a doctor.

"She didn't stand a chance by the time she was diagnosed. She was told there wasn't anything they could do."

Jess was diagnosed with terminal cancer on November 26, 2020 and died three weeks later, on December 20.

Mr Hunt said: “Unfortunately, many more lives will almost certainly end prematurely without earlier diagnosis and prompt treatment. That is why we are calling on the Government and the NHS to act now to address gaps in the cancer workforce upon which success depends. To date we have found little evidence of a serious effort to do so.”

The report also recommends the Government and NHS England set out an estimate of what level of additional capacity in NHS cancer services will be needed to address the backlog in cancer services and treatment by March 2023, and an action plan to ensure NHS cancer services are able to provide this additional capacity.

Mr Hunt said: "We need an overhaul of workforce planning to make sure we have enough cancer doctors and nurses, more support for GPs to spot cancers early and more research into rarer cancers."

He also said "we need to tackle the regional variation", with areas of social deprivation currently experiencing lower rates of early diagnosis.

"Every cancer diagnosis that's missed, every cancer diagnosis that's delayed, is potentially a family's whole life destroyed," he said.