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Rarer Cancers

Volume 609: debated on Tuesday 10 May 2016

The extraordinary pace of progress in biomedical science, not least in genomics and data, is transforming our understanding of cancer. It is leading to greater identification of more rare cancers, and indeed to more diseases becoming rare diseases. That is why we have invested so heavily in Genomics England and set up the 13 genomic medicine centres around the UK, leading in cancer and rare disease diagnosis. I am delighted that we are now setting up a Northern Ireland General Medical Council, which will collect 17,000 samples. We will implement the recommendations of the independent cancer taskforce on diagnosis and we are setting up a series of regional genetic laboratories and infrastructure. I believe the hon. Gentleman will be able to see that we are investing heavily in making sure we lead not only in the science but in the adoption of genomic medicine in the NHS.

I thank the Minister for all that, but remind him that there is concern about the implications of the cancer drugs fund details, as they will affect people with rare cancers. Is he prepared to promote progress on rare and less-common cancers as part of the new work programme for the British-Irish Council? The challenges of small patient numbers, thinner investment in research, and symptoms being less well known are not confined to his jurisdiction.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In both Northern Ireland and the Republic, I have seen some great leadership in this field, and as the UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences, I would be delighted to pick this up through that council, and suggest that our nations, working together, can collaborate better, not least in implementing the accelerated access reforms that I am putting in place. Those reforms, aligned with the cancer drugs fund in its revised format, should see us able to accelerate the adoption of drugs for rarer cancers for patients’ benefit.

In part because they are the hidden majority, people with rarer cancers are often diagnosed later, often through an emergency presentation. That can make for more aggressive treatments, which can have a longer-term impact on health. Will the Minister update the House on tailored recovery packages, and the plan to roll those out that was outlined by the Government back in September last year—a Government who have, I must say, been a great friend to the cancer community?

I am very grateful for that acknowledgment. We have put £1 billion into the cancer drugs fund, and we are completely committed to increasing the pace at which we bring cancer drugs through. It is true that cancer outcomes have improved quickly since 2010; in 2014-15, over 645,000 more patients with suspected cancers were seen. That is an increase of 71%. Almost 40,000 more patients were treated for cancer—an increase of 17%. We have announced funding of up to £300 million a year by 2020 to increase diagnostic capacity, so that we can meet the new target, which is that patients will be given a definitive cancer diagnosis or the all-clear within 28 days of being referred by a GP.

We are very grateful for all the work that is going on, and for how we are pulling together and working as a United Kingdom, but is there any way of helping those people who cannot afford to travel to the specialists to get the treatment? That is a huge chunk out of a devolved budget, and it is something that we should be working on together.

I will happily look at that as part of the discussions with the council that I just touched on. We are determined to make sure that this life science revolution is not just in the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle, but goes out across all the devolved areas, which of course are leading on much of the science. That is why we are committed, through the National Institute for Health Research and the NHS, to creating hubs across the country, so that everybody can benefit.

Is my hon. Friend aware that about a third of people, including those with rare cancers, will, on their cancer journey, use some form of complementary or alternative medicine? Is he further aware that there is a range of new treatments out there that are being used in the private sector, including virotherapy and hyperbaric oxygen therapy? The second particularly can help people who have serious effects from chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Will he look at some of these treatments and write to me about them?

I am not against people taking whatever they feel helps, but my hon. Friend will understand that in this field, in allocating every pound, we need to be guided by the very best science and evidence. Internationally, we are applauded for the quality of our assessment, and I intend to do everything to make sure that that continues.

Outcomes in cancer are not just about survival. Does the Minister agree that nowhere is the case for a seven-day NHS stronger than in palliative medicine, and will he say what can be done, in rolling out the 7/7 NHS, to address the scandal whereby only one in five hospitals has specialist palliative care cover on a Saturday and Sunday?

My hon. Friend makes a really important and specific point. He is absolutely right, and that is one reason why we are committed to our seven-day NHS. It is improving—I can share the data with him—but he makes a good point, and that is one reason why we need to continue.