But although the capacity of the NHS has been stretched like never before, there have also been many examples of innovations and changes which have served patients better.
There’s now a great opportunity to change cancer services in a way which builds upon the openness to innovation shown during the pandemic.
To address the long-standing challenges in cancer services once and for all, it is not enough to get cancer services “back to normal” – we can (and must) do better than this.
Earlier this year, on behalf of Yorkshire Cancer Research I co-signed a statement from more than 40 cancer charities – collectively called One Cancer Voice. We are urging the Government and NHS leaders to take action to improve cancer services for good.
Many of the recommendations made by One Cancer Voice overlap with Yorkshire Cancer Research’s own priorities and activities.
The pandemic has caused a huge backlog across all health services that must be urgently addressed. Between April and December 2020, it’s estimated that more than 3,500 people in Yorkshire were not diagnosed with cancer who should have been.
Many of these people will be living with cancer right now without knowing it and may have their cancer diagnosed later than it should have been.
The worst-case scenario is that all these people are diagnosed with cancer only once it becomes an emergency, rather than earlier through screening or awareness of symptoms which could be cancer.
As the ‘lockdown’ continues to lift, we must encourage everyone with any potential cancer symptoms to contact their GP without delay. Yorkshire Cancer Research is funding a range of local awareness campaigns and services across the region.
We’re also funding Check Your Lungs in Hull, which is working in communities and with GPs to increase early diagnosis, and later this year, we’ll be launching a lung cancer awareness campaign in other parts of Yorkshire.
We must also drive earlier and faster diagnosis by radically reforming how diagnostic services are delivered. At Yorkshire Cancer Research, we’ve been rolling out the Leeds Lung Health Check programme, offering CT scans to people across the city to help diagnose cancer earlier when it’s easier to treat. If successful, this project could lay the foundations for a new national lung cancer screening programme.
As the number of people being diagnosed each year continues to rise, we also need bold measures to help prevent cancer from developing in the first place. There are steps we can all take to reduce our own risk of cancer.
But we must acknowledge the role governments (both national and local) can play in reducing the number of preventable cancers.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable cancer, and we’re testing innovative solutions and funding pioneering research to find the best ways to support people to quit successfully.
However, ultimately, local public health services need more funding to help implement solutions that work for local communities.
We can also help people make a full recovery from cancer by ensuring better results from treatment through groundbreaking services. There’s now evidence that cancer recurrence can be prevented by ensuring people have access to personalised exercise programmes.
Underpinning all of these developments is research. Last year we funded two thirds of all recruitment to clinical trials in Yorkshire. Our region is one of the best locations for medical research in the whole country, and we want Yorkshire to keep that status.
Finally, the work that Yorkshire Cancer Research is funding would not be possible without our amazing supporters. The team and I have been humbled by the support we’ve received during the pandemic, most recently with our ‘Tour de Walkshire’ campaign, which has seen nearly 1,000 people raise more than £120,000 for life-saving research.
With your support, we can save lives by creating better cancer services in our region. I don’t under-estimate the amount of hard work that will be needed. But we have an opportunity now to transform cancer in Yorkshire, and we must take it.
Dr Kathryn Scott is chief executive of Yorkshire Cancer Research.
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