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Health: Pancreatic Cancer

Volume 825: debated on Monday 21 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve survival rates for pancreatic cancer.

Improving early diagnosis is incredibly important to help boost cancer survival, and the Government are committed to the NHS Long Term Plan ambition of diagnosing 75% of cancers at stage 1 or 2 by 2028. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose due its unspecific symptoms. To help diagnose these cancers, we have opened 91 community diagnostic centres and 96 non-specific symptoms pathways which are transforming the way those with symptoms not specific to one cancer are diagnosed.

My Lords, this is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, a time to remember those who have died prematurely of this cruel and unforgiving disease, but also a time angrily to reflect on the shocking statistics that surround this least-survivable and quickest-killing cancer: three in five pancreatic cancers are diagnosed at a late stage—worse than any other cancer; half of those diagnosed die within three months—worse than any other cancer; almost 60% of people are diagnosed in A&E—worse than any other cancer. These statistics are shameful. Would my noble friend tell us what has happened to the 10-year cancer plan, which is so vital in this area, and commit to a strategy within it to ensure early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer patients within 21 days of presenting with symptoms? Will he explain why there is so little investment in research in this area—just 3% of the total UK cancer research budget—when we vitally need a test to stop this horrible disease in its tracks?

My noble friend is correct: pancreatic is probably one of the cruellest of cancers. We have a 10-year cancer plan; to answer his question, we are going through 5,000 responses, and we are analysing them and will report back shortly. On research, we are performing over 70 different pancreatic cancer studies. Key to all of this is not just early diagnosis; more important than ever, in this awareness month, is making sure that people are aware and go to their doctors early if they have any concerns at all.

My Lords, one of the problems of this nasty cancer is that, by the time any symptoms occur, it is often too late. We desperately need some sort of screening test. Recent research has suggested that we may be able to pick it up in the bloodstream using a so-called liquid biopsy. What research is being done on this now?

I understand that the leader in this field is GRAIL. This blood screening is happening in America right now, and NICE is undertaking studies in this field to see whether it should be brought to the UK. We will have its findings. I agree that pancreatic cancer is an area where early detection is key. It is not just about the screening but about people going to their doctor if they have any concerns at all, as I say. We have non-specific symptoms pathways to help doctors to detect what is wrong.

My Lords, the UK ranks 29th of 33 countries for five-year pancreatic cancer survival rates. At the very least, we should ensure that pancreatic cancer patients get the best possible treatments in the short time usually available to them, with over half dying within three months. One such treatment is pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy—PERT—which helps them to eat and digest their food, but only about half of pancreatic cancer sufferers are offered this treatment. What are the Government doing to understand why this is the case and to ensure that all pancreatic cancer patients who need PERT are offered it?

I thank the noble Lord. This case has also been brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, who could not be here today, but he is very keen on this as well. We have now put PERT into NICE guidelines, so it should be offered. I am meeting my noble friend Lord Moynihan to make sure that these things are being taken up, and I would be happy to extend that invitation to the noble Lord.

My Lords, the Government’s current campaign to encourage people to go and see their GP if they have symptoms is commendable, but how can this help when people are waiting months to get scans and then weeks to get the results of their scan? What can be done about this?

This is where we see the diagnostic centres being a key area in this. We have set up 91 community diagnostic centres. In addition, in 2020 we had only 12 non-specific symptoms pathways; we are now rolling those out to 96, so that 75% of the population will be covered by March 2023, with a target of 100% by March 2024.

My Lords, the UK is lagging behind comparative European nations on cancer survival rates. In the landmark How Good is the NHS? report, the UK came last on pancreatic cancer survival rates. Could the Minister give a view as to why the UK compares so unfavourably to elsewhere? How will the recent comments of the Health Secretary about changes to national targets affect waiting times and survival rates for patients with pancreatic cancer?

We are very clear on the need for speed in cancer treatment; that is one target that will not change, because we know its importance in all this. With pancreatic cancer, we are where we were with prostate cancer about 10 or 15 years ago, and I am glad to see that we have made great strides on that with initiatives such as the Movember campaign and the action on that. Candidly, we are not where we need to be on pancreatic cancer, and we need to adopt those sorts of awareness campaigns, as well as fast action on screening, to improve our performance.

My Lords, 30 years ago cervical screening was developed and introduced; prior to that, cancer of the cervix was as impossible to detect and to find as pancreatic cancer. Will the Minister say whether research will be provided to ensure that screening for pancreatic cancer can be introduced as soon as it is confirmed, because screening was the real game-changer for cervical cancer?

I agree that screening programmes are, without doubt, the way forward. I mentioned earlier the 73 different pancreatic cancer research studies, of which screening is a very important element, so I totally agree that that should be our top priority.

My Lords, I declare my interests in the register. Clinical research is fundamental to ensuring the evaluation and rapid adoption of new therapeutic interventions that could improve survival rates in diseases such as pancreatic cancer, but operational pressures in the NHS are having an impact on the ability to conduct that clinical research. Is the Minister content that there is sufficient emphasis and support to maintain the infrastructure for clinical research and the capacity to deliver translational, early-stage and later-stage trials in pancreatic cancer?

My understanding is that we do have the capacity for these research trials. Also, on workforce in the cancer space, we have invested £50 million, so we are actually 200 people over our target on that. This is part of the Chancellor’s announcement about the long-term workforce study, which I know will be welcomed by many in this House, where we will be looking, area by area, at exactly what workforce needs we have—and we have a recruitment plan against that.

My Lords, in response to an earlier question, my noble friend the Minister talked about the need for more awareness in advance of identifying appropriate screening methods. Given that it is now Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, what else are the Government and the NHS doing outside that to ensure there is more awareness for patients to come forward for potential pancreatic cancer?

I thank my noble friend. Key to this is the Help Us to Help You campaign, which reaches out to lots of different communities, including a number of minority communities. At the same time, we have rolled out the early cancer diagnosis service to GPs, where they are looking out for some of those warning signs, even when people are there for a regular appointment. Clearly, as has been said by other speakers today, a lot more needs to be done; it is a journey, but awareness is the vital first part of that journey. On that point, I thank the Pancreatic Cancer UK charity, which has been excellent in this field.

My Lords, the Minister has just referred to awareness, to which he has referred many times in the course of this Question. Would he accept that, for some people, it is difficult to understand what you need to be aware of—particularly with a disease which is, as far as I am hearing today, largely asymptomatic for a good part of its early progression? Can he tell the House where people, who perhaps need to be aware, should look for the things that they need to be aware of?

The noble Baroness is correct: the problem about the so-called invisible diseases—of which cervical cancer is another example—is that you do not know quite what you should be looking for. That is why I mentioned earlier the non-specific symptoms pathways, which are exactly designed for those sorts of things, whereby general checks are included in the area so that, although people do not even go along with a specific symptom, they are starting to be screened. That needs to be rolled out further. As I mentioned before, this would cover 75% of the population by March 2023; clearly, we need to be at 100%, with the target of March 2024 for that.