On Monday 8th September, the backbench committee heard from 25 MPs during a lengthy debate with every single one of them backing calls for more funding and awareness for pancreatic cancer. The debate was secured as a result of a successful petition started by Maggie Watts who lost her husband Kevin to pancreatic cancer.
Prior to the debate, supporters along with the team from Pancreatic Cancer Action and Pancreatic Cancer UK met together in the Jubilee room at Westminster. They also heard from Maggie Watts, actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, and MPs Nik Dakin and Eric Ollerenshaw, who made heartfelt speeches about their connection to the debate paying tribute to all those who made it happen.
The debate took place in Committee Room 10. The public gallery was packed full of people who had lost loved ones to the disease, patients and charity representatives eager to see that the issues highlighted by the petition were debated thoroughly.
Nik Dakin, who is the MP for Scunthorpe and has supported constituent Maggie Watts throughout the lead up to the debate said: “Pancreatic cancer has not had the strong public spotlight of concern that some other diseases have had, so it is fantastic that the public’s voice has led directly to this debate, which I am proud to initiate.”
He continued: “There is not a lot in this world that hasn’t changed or improved over a 40 year period, including most other cancers but, for pancreatic cancer, survival rates are still shockingly low.”
He added: “It has not been a public or political priority, and that has to change.”
Eric Ollerenshaw, MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, highlighted the short time from diagnosis to death and called for more research funding.
He said that at least £10-12 million investment in research is the minimum needed to make an impact. In 2013, just over £5 million was spent on research. Eric said: “The minimum figure of £10 million to £12 million has not been plucked out of the air; it comes from a high-level analysis of other cancers, such as prostate and bowel, which suggests that there is a point where funding starts to grow in a more rapid and, importantly, more sustainable manner.”
John Barron, MP for Basildon and Billericay and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer, said that early diagnosis is vital: “The NHS is as good as anybody else, and maybe even better, at treating cancer once it has been diagnosed, but it is very poor at diagnosing cancer in the first place.”
He suggested that health outcomes should be the focus of CCG CEOs and they should be tasked with improving one- year survival rates for cancer in their region, putting a spotlight on the underperforming CCGs and getting them to improve their game.
He said: “It is up to the local CCG managers – the local NHS managers – to decide what initiatives to introduce that best suit their local populations. They could be, for example, better screening uptake or better diagnostics at primary care. They could be better referral pathways to, for example, CT scans, or better awareness campaigns. It could be any or all of those coming together to drive forward local initiatives to encourage earlier diagnosis.”
Mr Baron continued to stress the need for improving earlier diagnosis towards the end of the debate with the powerful comment: “I think we all accept that earlier diagnosis is cancer’s magic key.”
Barbara Keeley, MP for Worsley and Eccles South, highlighted the lack of progress in the disease referring to Maggie Watt’s story: “The fact that her husband stood ‘no better chance of survival in 2009 than his mother did in 1969 demonstrates completely how little progress has been made.
“It is quite a disturbing fact that deaths from pancreatic cancer did not just stay the same but increased between 2002 and 2013, while deaths from most other cancers declined.”
She called on Health Minister, Jane Ellison, to explain what could be done to improve awareness of the symptoms highlighting how successful the Coronation Street storyline had been in raising awareness. “As we have heard and will repeatedly hear, survival rates remain stubbornly low, and mortality rates have been increasing even as they fall for other types of cancer. Will she consider ensuring the development of specific awareness campaigns through appropriate media?”
Stewart Jackson, MP from Peterborough added: “Pancreatic cancer is an issue that unites people across parties, and it needs attention.
He agreed with Nik Dakin on the following point: “The hon. Member for Scunthorpe made the point that it is vital for the Government to have both quantitative and qualitative data at their disposal, to make value judgments about research.”
Grahame Morris, MP from Easington, highlighted discrepancies in survival rates in Europe: “The UK still lags behind most other European countries when it comes to cancer survival rates. To be fair, there have been significant improvements in cancer treatments across the board in recent decades, but as we are aware the rates for pancreatic cancer, at 3.3%, have virtually stood still in the past four decades, so this is not a criticism of the current Minister or the present regime – the present Government.”
He was keen to talk about the need for advanced radiotherapy in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, but said that more trials need to be done: “Until research into advanced forms of radiotherapy for the treatment of pancreatic cancer is increased and the viability of the technology can be properly verified – until we actually grasp the nettle and fund the research and the trials – NHS patients will continue to miss out.”
Iain Stewart, MP from Milton Keynes South, suggested that an improvement in referral guidelines is needed: “We need to speed up the time that it takes to diagnose pancreatic cancer; we need to stop patients being treated like ping-pong balls and being referred from a GP to a specialist, and back again, many times.”
Health minister Jane Ellison concluded the debate, providing ministers with feedback to their comments. This included suggesting that pancreatic cancer may be considered as part of a Be Clear on Cancer Campaign: “The group has considered pancreatic cancer for a possible campaign. Although it could not recommend that at this time, because symptoms are not always clear, it will keep that under review and would be happy to look at it again in the light of new evidence.”
She referred to comments from MPs about the need to better support GPs on recognising the signs and symptoms: “NICE is updating its guidelines on the referral of suspected cancer to ensure that they reflect the latest evidence. A number of Members raised that issue, and we anticipate a publication date of May 2015.”
She added: “The Department of Health part-funded a six-month pilot, run by Macmillan Cancer Support, of an electronic cancer decision support tool for GPs. It is designed to recognise the symptoms of five cancer types, including hard-to-detect cancers such as pancreatic.” Before being rolled out further, Ms Ellison said that they will be carrying out some changes to the software. Ms Ellison added that she will be looking at how direct access to CT scans can be improved for GPs.
The need for more funding for research was raised a number of times in the debate. In relation to this, Ms Ellison said: “I will ask the chief medical officer if she is happy to meet with me and the debate’s co-sponsors to look in a bit more detail at the research package and to understand the research journey and where it might go. I will get back to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe after the debate about that.”
Ms Ellison agreed that a change needs to happen and that ‘it will not be easy, but we can make change.’
The debate finished with Nik Dakin making the following statement: “This is the beginning of the rest of the campaign.”
Pancreatic Cancer Action believe that the debate raised the important issues relating to pancreatic cancer, including the need for earlier diagnosis through better diagnostic tools, improving referral pathways and increased research; a nationwide awareness campaign to raise profile of signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, and the need for better treatments to improve outcomes for patients. We feel confident that the debate will lead to some important discussions in Parliament and that it will contribute to the APPG inquiry into pancreatic cancer research.
We will keep you updated on the outcome of the debate and the work that we will be doing with Pancreatic Cancer UK to ensure that the issues raised in the debate will be finalised.
In the meantime, we need your help to continue to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer and educating the medical profession.