Former Dulwich and West Norwood MP Tessa Jowell has told fellow members of the House of Lords of her battle against brain cancer in a moving speech which reduced some members of the House to tears.
Baroness Jowell asked what action the Government were taking to evaluate innovative cancer treatments and make them available through the National Health Service, and to raise life expectancy for cancer patients.
“I begin by extending my deepest gratitude to everybody who is giving their time to attend the debate this afternoon, and to contribute to something that will begin to reshape the way we think about the treatment of cancer for people all over the world.
“In doing so, I thank the noble Lords, friends and colleagues who have shown me such support since I learned that I had a brain tumour.
“Today, though, is not about politics but about patients and the community of carers who love and support them.
“It is of course about the NHS but it is not just about money.
“It is about the power of kindness, support for carers, better-informed judgments by patients and doctors, and sharing access across more and better data to develop better treatments.
“I shall briefly tell your Lordships what happened to me. “On 24 May last year I was on my way to east London to talk, not for the first time, about new Sure Start projects. “I got into a taxi but I could not speak. “I had two powerful seizures. “I was taken to hospital. “Two days later I was told that I had a brain tumour—a glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM. “A week later the tumour was removed by an outstanding surgeon at the National Hospital in Queen Square. “I then had the standard treatment of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. “To put it in context, across the country GBM strikes fewer than 3,000 people every year. “It generally has a very poor prognosis.
“Less than two per cent of cancer research funding is spent on brain tumours, and no new vital drugs have been developed in the last 50 years.
“A major factor in survival is successful surgery.
“The gold standard is to use a dye to enable the surgeon to identify the tumour precisely, but it is available in only about half the brain surgery centres in the UK, and it must of course be extended to all of them.
“Cancer is a tough challenge to all health systems, particularly to our cherished health service.
“We have the worst survival rate in western Europe, partly because diagnosis in cancer is too slow. Brain tumours, in particular, grow very quickly, and they are very hard to spot.
“However, there is a good reason for hope. It is called the Eliminate Cancer Initiative. Its director, along with his great colleague who is travelling with him, is here with us today, one of the greatest men in the cancer field: Professor Ronald DePinho from the MD Centre in Houston.
“ECI is a global mix of programme and campaign, already under way in Australia. It is designed to be rolled out next in the UK, the USA and China.
“It recognises that no one nation can solve the problem of GBM on its own. It is an opportunity that belongs to the world.
“ECI aims to do three main things: first, link patients and doctors across the world through a clinical trial network; secondly, speed up the use of adaptive trials; and thirdly, build a global database to improve research and patient care.
“Usually, drug trials test only one drug at a time. They take years and cost a fortune to deliver. New adaptive trials test many treatments at the same time. They speed up the process and save a lot of money. We can see approaches to the delivery of cancer treatment transformed.
“ECI also has a secure cloud platform—it sounds rather technical, but you will very soon understand its importance—where doctors can share insight and data.
“Too much data is held in silos with highly limited access. That reduces its value. This is quite a new approach. Already, collaborative discussions are under way in England.
“ECI will focus on GBM because it is so tough to beat. It is all about sharing knowledge at every level between everyone involved. If we achieve this, we will go a long way to crack GBM and other cancers.
“For what would every cancer patient want? First, to know that the best, the latest science was being used and available for them, wherever in the world it was developed, whoever began it.
“What else would they want? They need to know that they have a community around them, supporting and caring, being practical and kind. While doctors look at the big picture, we can all be a part of the human-sized picture.
“Seamus Heaney’s last words were, “noli timere”—do not be afraid. I am not afraid. I am fearful that this new and important approach may be put into the “too difficult” box, but I also have such great hope.
“So many cancer patients collaborate and support each other every day. They create that community of love and determination wherever they find each other, every day. All we now ask is that doctors and health systems learn to do the same, and for us to work together, to learn from each other.
“In the end, what gives a life meaning is not only how it is lived, but how it draws to a close. I hope that this debate will give hope to other cancer patients like me, so that we can live well together with cancer—not just dying of it—all of us, for longer. “Thank you.” [Applause.]
“That belongs to all of us, so thank you very much.”
In a very lengthy response the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care (Lord O’Shaughnessy) (Con) began “by joining all members of this House in paying fulsome tribute to the noble Baroness, not just for securing this debate today but for the extraordinary character she is showing by leading it.
“It has been a rich and moving discussion and, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, it is extremely daunting to follow her and try to do justice to the requests and speech she has made, but it is also a privilege to be able to do that on behalf of the Government.
“I also praise the noble Baroness for the determination that she has shown in raising the profile of issues around cancer treatment during the course of her illness. “I think it is fair to say that she has inspired us all, and many cancer sufferers too, but I suppose we should expect nothing less from the woman who brought us the most wonderful Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012……
“Historically, we have lagged behind the best performing countries in Europe, and catching up with those standards has been a focus for successive Governments, including this one.
“There is good news. “Things are getting better. In the past eight years, various actions, including the establishment of the cancer drugs fund, mean that there are about 7,000 people alive who would not have been otherwise, but, as we have heard, the benefits of these actions are spread unevenly.
“Survival rates for certain cancers are stubbornly low. “Testicular cancer has been transformed into a nearly totally curable disease, but for other cancers—we have heard about oesophageal, stomach, pancreatic, lung, liver and, unfortunately, brain cancers—very little progress has been made. “There is much still to do and we need to do better…..
“Of course, their illness is not what defines cancer patients; life goes on, with its usual joys—if I heard the radio correctly, I think that for the noble Baroness that includes dancing—as well as its challenges. “Making sure that life can go on as normal, or as close to normal as possible, is essential.
“At the moment, standards of care are high but there is local variation, and that is why there is a plan to create a national recovery package that is there for every cancer patient from the moment they are diagnosed……
“The noble Baroness specifically asked about the availability of a key fluorescent dye, and I can tell her it is called 5-ALA. “It helps surgeons to see malignant tissue, so helps to ensure a more accurate surgical margin during surgery.
We have spoken to NHS England in advance of this debate, which has committed to working with the cancer alliances and the brain cancer surgery centres to drive national uptake of its usage……
“What the noble Baroness has done today is to offer hope. “With her courage in calling and leading this debate, and with her ever-fertile mind making suggestions for how we can improve cancer care, she raises our sights and demands that, collectively, we work harder to offer hope to people affected by the terrible disease she suffers with such dignity.
“It is the right challenge, and one I am prepared to accept on behalf of the Government. “In doing so, I promise her that our efforts will not waver until the scourge of cancer no longer robs us of the ones we love.”
Responding, Baroness Jowell thanked the Minister very much indeed for a really inspiring and excellent summary of our discussion.
“Obviously, I would like to thank everybody else who has considered, and taken part in, the discussion today. “I feel that we have made real progress forward. “It happens very rarely in this sort of way and I am absolutely delighted and grateful to everybody for their contributions and for the support that the Minister will continue to have. “I thank my very dear, long-standing friend, the Secretary of State.
“Everything will be done as we hope it will, so thank you very much indeed. “Now we look forward to the progress.” [Applause.]
Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen (Con): “My Lords, on a momentous day, I beg to move that we adjourn the House.”
Full transcript of the debate can be found by Googling House of Lords Hansard: NHS: Cancer Treatments 25 January 2018 Volume 788. Tessa Jowell was Labour MP for Dulwich Apr 1992 – May 1997, Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood May 1997 – Mar 2015