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Children: Cancer

Volume 822: debated on Thursday 26 May 2022


Asked by

Cancer in children is thankfully rare, accounting for less than 1% of cancer cases each year. The Government are dedicated to improving cancer outcomes and our new 10-year cancer plan will further our efforts to improve childhood cancer diagnosis rates and outcomes. We continue to invest in research, including with the paediatric experimental cancer research centres network, which is dedicated to early-phase research on childhood cancers.

My Lords, childhood cancer is not rare; it is the biggest killer by disease of children under 14 in the United Kingdom. Sadly, it is often diagnosed late and one in five children who get it will die. The issue was highlighted in the House of Commons last month in an excellent debate led by Caroline Dinenage. There, there was a cross-party consensus that, with just 3% of funding spent on children’s cancer, there needs to be greater emphasis on research, detection and treatment. Will childhood cancer be a priority for the Government’s 10-year cancer strategy and will the requested childhood cancer mission become a reality?

I thank my noble friend for the question and for discussing the issue with me previously. As he rightly says, even though it is rare, cancer is the biggest killer of children aged up to about the age of 15. The Government’s new 10-year plan for cancer care is under development. It will address the cancer needs of the entire population, including those of children. We also recognise the severe impact that cancer has on not only the patient but their family and friends, and are focusing in particular on interventions that support patients through difficult journeys of diagnosis, treatment and aftercare.

My Lords, research for finding new treatments for cancers, particularly childhood cancers, where the numbers are small, requires international collaboration. Some 42% of current CRUK clinical trials have international partners. The Government are consulting on clinical trials regulation and we have data sharing and protection legislation going through Parliament. Does the Minister agree that it is important that neither the regulation related to clinical trials nor the legislation related to data sharing should in any way jeopardise our international role in clinical trials collaboration?

I thank the noble Lord for the question, which cuts across three of the priority areas in my ministerial portfolio: data sharing, the life sciences industry—in which clinical trials and research play a huge part—and international collaboration. It is really important that we continue international collaboration. However, one of the challenges we face is that we have to make sure that patients are comfortable with researchers having access to their data. As part of that work, we have called in civil liberties organisations to help us along that journey. So, while we encourage more people to share data, we have to make sure that they have those protections. We can have the best systems in the world, but, if people opt out, they are useless.

My Lords, many families of children with cancer have to travel a long distance to get treatment for their child. Those families face financial problems. Will the Government do more to help families who have children with cancer and who are feeling financial pressures because they need to travel and cannot continue to work because of the pressure the family is under?

The noble Lord makes an incredibly important point about support. One of the things we are looking at in the research is how to help not just the patient but their family and their wider support network. I will take his specific question about assistance back to my department and write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of Genomics England. I am pleased to report to the House that whole-genome sequencing is now improving care for children with cancer as part of the NHS Genomic Medicine Service. In fact, Great Ormond Street recently found that WGS has reclassified diagnosis in 14% of cases, changed management of the condition in 24% of cases and improved diagnosis in 81% of cases. Will the Minister join me in thanking those at Genomics England and in the NHS who worked so hard during the pandemic to get this service up and running? Will he also pledge today to do whatever he can to scale this service so that we can play our full part in tackling this pernicious disease head-on?

I thank my noble friend for that. It is really important that we look at the huge potential of genomic research and the information it can give us. It is also important that, as we move towards the newly born programme, we do genomic sequencing of newly born babies so we have that data and are aware of the issues that could arise in their lifetime. In addition, we are looking at technology on testing—some research trials show that there are blood tests that could identify up to 50 different types of cancer early—so there is a lot of work going on in this area.

My Lords, too often people think only of outcomes that are about survival. Children with cancer are treated with therapies that were tested on and designed principally for adults. Cancer Research UK knows that these treatments can and do have serious long-term impacts on these young growing bodies and that parents often struggle to get the support they need. What is being done to improve follow-up care for childhood cancer survivors: for their education, their health and in particular their mental health?

All these issues are being looked at as we understand more about childhood cancer and also in the context of wider support. That is important not only during the time they are receiving treatment; as the noble Baroness rightly says, it is not just about the cancer itself but about some of the poor patients and their families, because when they get the bad news it affects their mental health. We have to look at this in a holistic way and there are a number of initiatives. I will write to the noble Baroness with some more detail.

My Lords, early diagnosis is key to successful outcomes in all kinds of cancer. In the long-term plan the Government set out an ambitious target for increasing the early diagnosis of most cancers. Can the Minister tell the House what impact Covid, the subsequent backlog and the shortage of clinicians in the NHS is having on the achievement of this target, how progress towards it is being measured and how it is being reported?

I thank the noble and gallant Lord for that question. I am really sorry—I have completely forgotten what it was. Can he remind me?

Could the Minister tell us what impact Covid, with its backlog and the shortage of NHS clinicians, is having on how the target is being measured and reported?

I completely apologise to all noble Lords. It is important that we look at this issue; I am afraid I will have to write to the noble and gallant Lord with more detail.

Following on from the question of the noble and gallant Lord about the matter of significant improvements being made in the lives of children with cancer by detecting cancer early and avoiding delays in care, there are of course three components to early diagnosis, with the first being awareness of symptoms by families and primary caregivers. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what assessment has been made of the level of awareness and what is being done to promote that awareness among families and primary caregivers?

The noble Baroness raises an important point about how we raise awareness, and that goes right across not only the population but patients themselves. NHS England and NHS Improvement are developing plans for future phases of their Help Us Help You campaign to raise awareness of key cancer symptoms. To date, the campaign has contributed to the record high levels of urgent cancer referrals that the NHS has seen since March 2021.

Perhaps I may take the opportunity to address the question from the noble and gallant Lord. Covid clearly affected the backlog. One of the things about the waiting list is that now 80% of people on it are waiting for diagnosis. One of the issues we are looking at is how you push out more community diagnosis centres around the country, not only in hospitals but in shopping centres and sports arenas, so that effectively we go to the patient and detect as early as possible. We hope that all that, in conjunction with things such as blood testing and genomic sequencing, will lead to earlier diagnosis.

My Lords, brain tumours are the single biggest cause of death among children and adults under the age of 40 of any cancer. The Government made a generous commitment to increase funding, which is absolutely essential for brain tumour cancer research, but, so far, they have not met the target that they themselves set. Will my noble friend undertake to review this situation, given the seriousness of the position?

One of the things about answering a question like that is that we are now aware of so many different types of cancer. For example, a blood test that has been trialled identifies 50 different types of cancer. Sadly, my mother-in-law died of a brain tumour, and I have asked questions about that in the department. If my noble friend will allow me, rather than read out a short answer I will write to him in more detail.