There are 400,000 people alive up to 20 years after diagnosis. But not all return to full health once treatment is over, and they need support.
By: Lesley Smith
Date: Tuesday 16 July 2013 05.00 EDT
‘GPs must be better equipped to monitor and recognise the potential long-term consequences of cancer treatment.’ Photograph: LWA-Dann Tardif/CORBIS
The cancer story is changing. What was once feared as a death sentence is now an illness that many people survive. As survival rates increase, so too will the number of people living with the legacy of cancer and its treatment.
Last month Macmillan Cancer Support revealed that by 2020 almost half of the population in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. This has risen by more than a third in the past 20 years due to the improvement in overall life expectancy.
While the number of people getting cancer is rising, there is also good news.
Improvements in when the disease is diagnosed and the kinds of treatment and care available mean more people are surviving cancer than ever before. In England alone, there are currently 400,000 people alive 10 to 20 years after they were diagnosed with cancer, according to research by Macmillan and the National Cancer Intelligence Network.
Unfortunately, not all cancer patients return to full health once their treatment is over.
Some are left with debilitating health problems as a direct result of their cancer and its treatment, and these people often feel abandoned. They are no longer cancer patients in the eyes of the healthcare system and sometimes do not know who to turn to for help.
This is an important issue, which fails to get the attention it deserves. To help put the spotlight on the long-term consequences of treatment, on Friday Macmillan will launch a new report, “Cured – but at what cost?”. The report will look in detail at the distressing issues that can affect many cancer patients, such as chronic fatigue, bowel and urinary incontinence, pain, depression and sexual difficulties, following their treatment.
The NHS is woefully unprepared to help the rapidly growing number of people with these problems, especially when they occur in older age, when other health and social needs are more common. So what is the solution?
There are things that cancer patients can do to help manage their own recovery, but they need support to do so. Giving every cancer patient at the end of treatment a recovery package, developed by the National Cancer Survivorship Initiative, is the single most important thing the NHS can do to help. A recovery package will identify their needs and suggest a plan of action, including advice on keeping active, signs and symptoms to look out for and what to do if any arise, how to handle returning to work and managing any financial issues.
For people with complex and severe consequences of cancer and its treatment, better specialist services offering expert care are needed.
Once someone is no longer visiting hospital on a frequent basis for cancer treatment, their local GP can play an important role in their recovery and ongoing health. GPs must be better equipped to monitor and recognise the potential long-term or late onset consequences of cancer treatment, such as osteoporosis or heart disease, so that they can provide advice and treatment, or refer people for specialist help if necessary.
We want more and more people to survive cancer and to ensure that they have a good quality of life. This can only happen if more recognition is given to minimising and treating long-term effects, and if the health system better prepares people to cope with the many lasting changes that cancer and its treatment can bring.
Lesley Smith is the consequences of treatment programme manager at the National Cancer Survivorship Initiative
*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.