Nic Dakin: Time to up our game on cancer survival rates

Sir John Hurt died from pancreatic cancer earlier this year.

Sir John Hurt died from pancreatic cancer earlier this year.

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A FEW weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister if she would join me and other MPs across the House of Commons in championing the need for a significant increase in spending on research into pancreatic cancer, the illness that claimed the life of the acclaimed actor Sir John Hurt, amongst many others, earlier this year.

I was overwhelmed and humbled by the response. The simple act of standing up and asking a straightforward question touched a chord with so many people. They shared their moving stories with me. Stories like that of my constituent Maggie Watts whose husband Kevin’s chances when diagnosed were no better than his mother’s, who died 40 years earlier.

Maggie has set up the #HopeIsContagious Campaign which aims to create awareness around the symptoms of pancreatic cancer in the hope this leads to earlier diagnosis for some with a positive impact on survival rates. It was great to join Ali Stunt, founder and chief executive of Pancreatic Cancer Action, to celebrate her 10 years of survival. So it can be done if more people are diagnosed early enough.

In nearly every walk of life – including cancer treatment – there have been massive improvements over the last 40 years. The outcomes for bowel and breast cancer have been dramatically improved. But there are a group of ‘stuck’ cancers where, sadly, there has been little change. In the next few years, pancreatic cancer will become the fourth biggest cancer killer so it is high time to up our game.

While funding for pancreatic cancer research has increased marginally over the past 10 years it still accounts for only one per cent of overall research funding and only two per cent of site-specific funding. This is despite it being the fifth largest cause of cancer death in the UK.

Of the £521m spent by the National Cancer Research Institute partners in 2013, only £5.2m was spent on pancreatic cancer. In contrast, breast cancer received £42m, bowel cancer £23m, leukaemia £32m and prostate £17m. If we want to shift the ground in outcomes for pancreatic cancer, we have got to start to match the spending.

That’s why it’s so good to hear that Cancer Research UK will also be investing £10m into a new research project, PRECISION-Panc led by Professor Andrew Biankin at the University of Glasgow. This will be the largest single investment into the disease. The project aims to match patients to the right clinical trials for their particular tumour type, ensuring that they receive the most effective treatment for them. It is hoped that this personalised approach will result in more patients living longer with the disease.

According to Facebook, my post on my question to the Prime Minister reached 77,000 people. And, whatever that means, it shows that people care about this issue.

So I’m proud to chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on Pancreatic Cancer which is strongly supported by MPs and peers from both Houses of Parliament.

What is clear is that there are inspirational people doing some fantastic work in raising awareness of the disease, in developing treatments and in providing diagnosis, surgery and support. We were privileged to take evidence from many of these people including the three superb pancreatic cancer charities: Pancreatic Cancer UK, Pancreatic Cancer Action and the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund.

What has come through in the evidence is a reminder that far too many patients have persistent symptoms before finally being diagnosed through A&E. There is a pilot going on in the West Midlands as part of the Be Clear on Cancer Campaign around persistent vague abdominal pains.

It will be very interesting to hear the results that these projects brings forward as it is clear that greater awareness of symptoms amongst the general population would increase the likelihood of early diagnosis.

In Manchester and Birmingham, one stop shops for assessing patients are being trialled. The early indications are that these are making a real difference in getting patients to treatment quicker with much better outcomes. And there is some interesting research seeking possible biomarkers or other signals for screening. So things are moving in the right direction, but perhaps not as quickly as I would like.

Hopefully I will be moving in the right direction on St George’s Day (April 23) when I will be taking part in the Virgin Money London Marathon. I am raising money for the three Pancreatic Cancer Charities that I work with – Pancreatic Cancer UK, Pancreatic Cancer Action, and the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund – and for two local causes: the Scunthorpe Food Bank and Lindsey Lodge Hospice.

If you can, please sponsor me at: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/NicDakinMP

Nic Dakin is the Labour MP for Scunthorpe.

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