Cancer survival rates in Suffolk and Essex remain a postcode lottery

Nichola Whymark, breast cancer survivor, has been speaking about her experience ahead of World Cance

Nichola Whymark, breast cancer survivor, has been speaking about her experience ahead of World Cancer Day. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

Cancer survival rates have improved significantly in Suffolk and Essex in the last 15 years, but there is still a postcode lottery in patient outcomes, according to latest figures.

Katherine Simpson-Jacobs with her book "What We Did When Mummy Got Cancer" at the launch of the book

Katherine Simpson-Jacobs with her book "What We Did When Mummy Got Cancer" at the launch of the book at Seckford Hall.

Although more people are now living longer after diagnosis, official statistics have highlighted differences in survival rates across the country, with those in the east of the county significantly worse than in the west.

Cancer survival rates one year after diagnosis in Ipswich and East Suffolk were 68% in 2013 - a poorer outcome than more than three quarters of clinical commissioning groups across the rest of the country.

Between 1998 and 2013 its survival rate had improved by the eighth smallest margin, seeing it fall down the rankings from 47th to 169th out of 209. Great Yarmouth and Waveney CCG also fell down the rankings into the bottom third, whereas West Suffolk had improved to have best survival rate in the eastern region.

Today, health chiefs said they were committed to improving early diagnosis and raising awareness of cancer symptoms to drive up the rates, while people showing symptoms were urged to seek help at the earliest possible opportunity.

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The Government has pledged to spend £300 million a year on increased testing by 2020, but cancer survivors and charities say more needs to be invested in publicity to increase awareness.

Karen Hare, chief executive at Cancer Campaign in Suffolk, said the charity struggled to find public funding to support its workshops, which have provided guidance on cancer related issues to more than 25,000 people in the county since 2012.

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“It’s about people talking about cancer, telling people not to feel ashamed about it and going to their GP at the earliest opportunity,” she added. “It’s a better conversation to have at that early stage than to have it further down the line when you have left it too late.”

Mrs Hare said it was also important for people to take advantage of the free screenings offered for certain types of cancer, highlighting a concerning increase in the number of cervical screenings being refused.

Darren Couchman, 42, who survived testicular cancer and is now a fundraising co-ordinator for Cancer Research UK, called for greater support to help GPs identify symptoms after he was initially refused a referral by his doctor in Essex.

Darren Couchman, who campaigns for men to check for testicular cancer

Darren Couchman, who campaigns for men to check for testicular cancer - Credit: Archant

“People should be responsible for their own wellbeing, live healthy lives, follow all the advice, but also have the courage to go to doctors if something doesn’t feel right and keep pushing for a referral if they are not happy with the outcome,” he said.

In West Suffolk, where some of the biggest improvements have been recorded, with the survival rate reaching 71.8% in 2013 – just below the top 10% nationally - Matthew Piccaver, of Glemsford surgery in Bury St Edmunds, says all doctors refer patients for further investigation.

Katherine Simpson-Jacobs, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2013, said her GP was “incredibly prompt” in making a referral.

The 42-year-old mother-of-two, who teaches at St Joseph’s College in Ipswich and has written a book about her experiences to explain the disease to her two young daughters and other children, said “I found the whole process to be exemplary.

“There as incredible care in placed as soon as I got the diagnosis.”

The report, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), comes less than a month after figures released by NHS England showed more than a quarter of cancer patients at Colchester hospital had to wait longer than two months for treatment, breaching national targets.

Nationally, the NHS is meant to ensure 85% of patients referred urgently by their GP for their first treatment receive it within 62 days, but it only managed to do so with 83.4% of patients last year. For particular cancers, such as bowel and lung cancers, that percentage was even lower.

The latest ONS report also noted variations in the improved survival rates for specific forms of cancer.

West Suffolk made great strides in colorectal cancer survival rates, which increased from a below average 66.2% in 1998 to 81.4% in 2013 – the seventh best of all CCGs in England. Ipswich and East Suffolk, however, had one of the worst lung cancer survival rates in 2013, despite it being better than the national average at the start of the survey period.

Graphic showing cancer survival rates

Graphic showing cancer survival rates - Credit: Archant

Every CCG in the region saw its breast cancer survival rate drop down the national rankings, with North East Essex falling from having one of the nation’s best in 1998 to being among the worst in 2013.

Breast cancer survivor Nichola Whymark, 39, from Martlesham, said the news of her diagnosis in 2013 was “the most horrific time” and backed calls for people to seek medical help.

“Although the survival rates with breast cancer are good, there’s still an awful lot of people dying from the disease and a lot of the time it’s because the symptoms are not being detected,” she added.

“If anyone for one minute thinks there is something wrong with their body and it’s persisting they should keep pushing their GP for a referral, because that’s the crucial thing.”

While cancer survival rates have improved over the 15 years featured in the report, the number of diagnoses have also increased, reinforcing the need for early detection and public awareness.

Rebecca Smittenaar, Cancer Research UK’s statistics manager, said it was “good news” more people than ever are surviving cancer longer at a national and local level, despite the differences between areas.

“Diagnosing cancer early is crucial to ensure patients have the best chances of survival as well as ensuring they receive the best and most suitable treatments,” she added. “If anyone is worried about a symptom they should see their doctor without delay or they can call our nurses on 0808 800 40 40.”

The report found the most common cancer for males in 2013 was prostate cancer, while for females it was breast cancer.

Lung and colorectal cancers were the second and third most common cancers for both sexes.

Ten year survival rates have also improved, according to a report in February, although certain cancers such as pancreatic remain low at 1%.

Schools and social groups interested in booking a workshop from Cancer Campaign in Suffolk should call 01473 211 884

Mrs Whymark is raising funds for Cancer Research by attempting 40 challenges before her 40th birthday. Visit here to sponsor her.

To find out more about Mrs Simpson-Jacobs’ book What We Did When Mummy Got Cancer, the profits from which go to Cancer Campaign in Suffolk, visit here.

Health chiefs: ‘We’ll keep working hard to improve patient outcomes’

Health chiefs have welcomed improvements in cancer survival rates while pledging to keep working towards even better standards.

Ipswich and East Suffolk and NHS West Suffolk clinical commissioning groups said the improvements had been achieved by making sure cancers are diagnosed promptly, services are compliant with national guidance and care is delivered “in the right place at the right time”.

“Our CCGs work with GPs, local hospitals and Public Health Suffolk who all share the same commitment to ensuring as many people as possible survive cancer,” a spokesman added.

“A positive outcome is best achieved for the patient if they get the cancer diagnosis early on. Our CCGs are committed to increasing the levels of early diagnosis and, with our healthcare partners, have worked hard to raise awareness of cancer symptoms.”

Maggie Tween, head of cancer, palliative and end of life care with NHS Great Yarmouth and Waveney CCG, also highlighted the importance of detecting cancer as early as possible.

“As such, commissioning high quality cancer services which patients from across Great Yarmouth and Waveney can access quickly is a priority for the CCG,” she added.

Ms Tween highlighted the importance of screening programmes and said the CCG also took part in national awareness campaigns to encourage people to seek medical help at an earlystage.

She said the CCG supported public health teams with initiatives to reduce people’s risk of developing cancer, such as stopping smoking and taking regular exercise.

Tony Goldson, who is responsible for health at Suffolk County Council, said four in 10 cancer cases were linked to lifestyle issues including diet and alcohol consumption.

“Being aware of these risk factors and making simple lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of developing cancer,” he added.

Louise Smith, director of public health at Norfolk County Council added: “The most important thing you can do to lower your risk of cancer is not to start smoking. If you do smoke please try to quit – we have services that can help you.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The number of people surviving cancer is at a record high and continues to improve. But we want to be even better and save more lives. We are continuing to increase awareness of symptoms, training more staff to do tests and have committed up to £300million a year by 2020 on increasing testing to improve early diagnosis”

New hopes for a cure

Scientists announced new research last week that could help find a cure for cancer by using the body’s own immune system to target tumours.

Researchers at University College London say they have found a ground breaking new technique that locates the “Achilles heel” of tumours to help the body fight the disease.

The studies, funded by Cancer Research UK, are hoped to lead to human trials within two years, though it is acknowledged the treatment is likely to be expensive.

It works by guiding the body’s immune system to target tumour cells while leaving healthy ones.

Specialised immune cells called T-cells can theoretically identify the faults in DNA that lead to cancer,

allowing them to destroy the cancerous cells in the same way as they are already programmed to destroy diseased cells.

Professor Charlie Swanton, of Cancer Research UK, said: “Although it’s early days, it offers hope that we might just be able to turn the tide against advanced cancer – something we desperately want for our patients.”

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