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Health: Cancer

Volume 742: debated on Monday 14 January 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the Department of Health 2013 generic cancer symptoms awareness campaign will help improve early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

My Lords, from today, we are piloting a general cancer symptoms campaign to raise awareness and encourage people with relevant symptoms to visit their GP. The campaign will run in five cancer network areas until mid-March and will be relevant to a range of cancers, including pancreatic cancer. Data, including GP attendance, urgent referrals for suspected cancer and diagnostic test activity, will be collected and analysed to assess the impact of the campaign.

My Lords, pancreatic cancer is the fifth most deadly cancer in the UK, accounting for some 7,900 deaths a year. UK survival rates are significantly worse than in some other countries, as are the numbers of patients being referred for operations, the only effective cure. Since earlier diagnosis is essential to improve these outcomes, what plans does the Minister have to ensure that the proposed campaign includes new tools to help GPs detect pancreatic cancer and better pathways for them to refer suspected cases for further testing and support?

The noble Lord is absolutely right about the importance of earlier diagnosis. I can give two examples of work running this year to assist GPs in the assessment and earlier diagnosis of cancer patients, including those with pancreatic cancer. Rolling out from March, Macmillan Cancer Support, with funding from the department, will be piloting an electronic cancer decision support tool for GPs to use as part of their routine practice in order to help identify and assess more effectively patients with possible cancer. The initial pilot will cover a number of cancers, including pancreatic cancer. Further, the National Action Cancer Team is supporting the distribution of further desk-based versions of risk assessment tools for use in general practice, and these include a pancreatic cancer risk assessment tool.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that people think that there is no effective treatment for pancreatic cancer—we are always told that lung and pancreatic cancer are the two worst—but other treatments are being given in other countries? A very dear relation of mine in Australia has benefited from having radium pellets injected directly into the secondary lesions and is progressing very well indeed in the second year since her treatment. Her symptoms are much improved. Can he give an assurance that we will give people in this country hope that we will look at treatments being used in other countries that are improving pancreatic cancer outcomes and ensure that we are not left behind in this area?

My Lords, I am very interested to hear about the treatment mentioned by my noble friend and I can remind her, although I am sure she needs no reminding, that one of the key roles of NICE is to keep evidence of new treatments under review. I do not doubt that as a result of my noble friend’s intervention, it will wish to look at that particular treatment. Pancreatic cancer can grow initially without any symptoms and it is possible that people might not recognise the symptoms. That is why the “Know 4 sure” campaign, which I have mentioned, highlights four key symptoms including loss of weight and pain, which can be symptoms of pancreatic cancer.

My Lords, is it not the case that the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is extremely difficult? The organ lies deep within the abdomen and cannot be seen or felt, so by the time the patient shows symptoms, it is often too late. What we really need is research that will provide us with a biomarker which can be used for screening and early diagnosis. Can the noble Earl tell us whether research along these lines is going on within the NHS?

My Lords, via the Medical Research Council we are supporting a study to assess the effectiveness of a new test called the Mcm5 protein test to see if it can help to diagnose cancer of the pancreas, bile duct and gall bladder. I am also aware of a number of other research projects that my department is funding in the field of pancreatic cancer and I would be happy to write to the noble Lord with the details.

My Lords, where you live will dramatically affect your chances of surviving pancreatic cancer. In south-west London the one-year survival rate is 22% while in north Trent it is 11%. Do we know why this is? What are we getting right in south-west London but not in north Trent?

My noble friend is absolutely right to raise the point. To support the NHS in tackling regional variations in cancer survival rates, we are providing data to providers and commissioners that allow them to benchmark their services and outcomes against one another and to identify where improvements need to be made. Surgical resection is currently the best curative intervention for pancreatic cancer, and through the National Cancer Intelligence Network we have already made available data collections on the survival rates and surgical resection rates across a range of cancers, including pancreatic cancer.

My Lords, what proportion of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is managed in specialist centres by a specialist, multidisciplinary team? What proportion of patients in those centres is entered into clinical trials? We all recognise that participation in clinical research improves clinical outcomes in these centres.

My Lords, the UK now has the highest national per capita rate of cancer trial participation in the world, which is something that not everybody realises. We have improved the amount of information available to patients, clinicians and the public about clinical trials by establishing the UK Clinical Trials Gateway. I will write to the noble Lord with information about specialist centres, but he will know that surgery for pancreatic cancer is a complex business and needs to be undertaken by those who are very well versed in that particular line of clinical activity. I am sure that a high proportion will be treated in those centres but I will find out more if I can.

My Lords, I refer the House to my health interest. On the question of variation, the noble Earl mentioned earlier the role of GPs. Will he accept that there is a wide variation in the performance of GPs? Can he confirm that we can expect the NHS Commissioning Board from 1 April this year to start taking action where GPs are not doing what is required?

Yes, my Lords, because a major role of the Commissioning Board is to support general practice and, indeed, vice versa. In the current year, cancer networks are continuing to support GPs to diagnose cancer earlier through a range of work including continual professional development, primary care-led audits of cancers, and ensuring that GPs are prepared when patients present in response to public cancer awareness campaigns. Therefore, there is a range of work going on to ensure that GPs are better versed in this area.