A little bit of T.L.C this Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Georgina O’Reilly, Consultant

Every 10 minutes someone is diagnosed with breast cancer.

Every 10 minutes someone’s life will change.

Everyone’s experience will be different. Family, friends, and communities will rally. Priorities will change overnight.

Most people’s lives will be affected by cancer in some way during their lifetime. I was 13 when my mum was first diagnosed with breast cancer, mid-20s when it came back – shortly before my grandmother, her mother, was also diagnosed. No number of clichés can quite prepare you for these moments.

This breast cancer awareness month we wear pink. We wear pink to celebrate, we wear pink to remember, and we wear pink to raise awareness. Awareness for those going through their own breast cancer journey, awareness for the charities working tirelessly to promote research and breakthroughs, and awareness to normalise regular self-checks. 

As political parties jostle for ground on who is doing the most for cancer prevention and treatment in the lead up to a 2024 election – the old adage of actions speaking louder than words will be the only thing that matters for cancer patients and their families.

Plagued by the pernicious decline of the NHS and record high waiting lists, the Conservatives have an uphill battle ahead of them to stem the bleeding of the crumbling health system. Nonetheless, former Health Secretary Sajid Javid came out swinging in early 2022, declaring a “War on Cancer” and announcing a 10-year Cancer Plan for England.

Yet, following Javid’s departure, the 10-year Cancer Plan never came to fruition, instead folded into a 5-year Major Conditions Strategy (MCS) – alongside conditions such as stroke, diabetes, mental health and dementia. The Major Conditions Strategy was met with major concern by cancer advocacy groups at the time, with Leukaemia UK saying, “we are concerned that the abandonment of a cancer-specific plan implies a dilution of ambition and detracts from some of the specific asks and issues raised by people affected by cancer.”

Breast Cancer UK acknowledged that the MCS did provide a “broad-stroke” approach to public health improvement, which takes into consideration overlapping factors that contribute to the major conditions affecting the UK population. But they too had concerns over a lack of a cancer specific plan, saying “The nature of a multi-condition strategy means that conditions will not get the required depth of coverage. More concerningly for us will be the lack of focus on making health a consideration across all the Government’s work.”

The illnesses included in the MCS “account for over 60% of ill health and early death in England”. By 2035, two-thirds of adults over 65 are expected to be living with two or more conditions, while 17% could have four or more. But whether the MCS provides the antidote or the affliction to the War on Cancer remains to be seen.

From declaring a “War on Cancer” to declaring an ambition for the children born in Britain today to “become the healthiest generation that ever lived”, Labour is not immune to grandiose declarations about healthcare. At a meeting with leading cancer experts earlier this year, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, a cancer survivor himself, asked the public “to judge the Labour government on whether it is delivering quality and timely care for cancer patients.”

Many of Streeting’s recent announcements will contribute to improvement in diagnosis and treatment – including an increase in diagnostic scanners, and investing in tackling the waiting times backlog. Streeting used his unenviable slot on the last day of Labour Party Conference (and the day after Sir Keir Starmer’s address) to ram home his plan to turn the NHS on its head. But there was a glaring omission of cancer improvement in his address, as noted by the Brain Tumour Charity “a lot of the announcements will help cancer services, but it was nonetheless disappointing to not see a specific reference to improving cancer services.”

It has, in fact, been the Lib Dems who have given the most tangible commitment to cancer improvement with their two-month cancer treatment guarantee. In leader Ed Davey’s highly personal speech to Lib Dem Conference this year where he spoke of losing both his parents to cancer at a young age - the guarantee introduces a new legal right for cancer patients to start treatment within two months of an urgent referral. Whilst the guarantee was broadly welcomed, the practicalities of the announcement was questioned against a backdrop of 100,000 health service vacancies.

But as the theatre of political jostling wages on - people’s lives will continue to get turned upside down by a cancer diagnosis every day. So as breast cancer awareness month comes to a close, we at Atticus encourage everyone – men and women alike – to regularly check themselves for any signs of breast cancer. Breast Cancer advocates encourage regular T.L.C. – Touch your breasts, Look for changes and Check anything new or unusual with your GP. Anyone can get breast cancer, and every 10 minutes someone will. So check yourselves, encourage your friends and loved ones to check themselves, and take time to celebrate and remember this breast cancer awareness month.

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