You may have noticed a number of cancer-related stories in the news this week. For one thing, data released by the Health and Social Care Information Centre has shown a significant recent drop in the number of women in England taking part in breast cancer screening programmes. The portion of women aged 50 – 70 screened has fallen from 70% in the year 2004-2005 to 63% in the year 2014-2015. The drop off appears to have been most significant in younger women aged around 50 – which, as the researchers have pointed out, is worrying since screening is most successful where it is able to pick up cancers in their early stages.
Secondly, you might have seen that a radical new method of cancer treatment has been highlighted by scientists as a potential future revolution in the fight against cancer. One leading cancer scientist, Dr Giannoula Klement of Tufts University in the USA, has said that cancer research has focused for too long on trying to find a ‘cure’ for cancer when, in reality, “the likelihood that a ‘magic bullet’ against cancer is going to be found is nil”. She went on to suggest that this approach has caused researchers to become involved in a “cat and mouse game with cancer” that they are hugely unlikely to win. The new method of treatment, which embraces what has been called the “eco-evolutionary model” of cancer, seeks to control rather than destroy cancerous tumours. Instead of trying to kill all cancerous cells in a tumour – which often results in leaving only treatment-resistant cancer cells which then rapidly multiply when treatment stops – this new method consists in a strong initial ‘blast’ of treatment before reducing doses gradually. The hope is to reduce and control the size of the tumour, without allowing the drug-resistant cells to take over. As experts have made clear, this new treatment has only been tested on mice, and there’s a long way to go before we will know whether it will work in humans.
Finally, the row over junior doctors’ NHS contract has shown no sign of stopping this week. After it was announced that the government would impose the controversial new contracts on them, the British Medical Association announced this week that there would be yet more strike action to protest the decision. Three 48-hour strikes are now planned to take place across March and April. The new contract alters the definition of junior doctors’ “normal working hours” to include most of Saturday and up to 9pm on weekdays, and this remains the most significant point of disagreement between junior doctors and the BMA on the one side and the government led by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt on the other. Hunt insists that the changes are necessary to meet the demands of a 7-day NHS (and thus reduce weekend death-rates), that they are surrounded by a contract that is otherwise fair and reasonable, and that junior doctors’ hours for the most part will remain unchanged, while they will see a rise in basic pay. The BMA, on the other hand, argue that a contract change is fundamentally the wrong way to answer the problems that the NHS is facing: a spokesperson has said that “if the government wants more seven-day services then, quite simply, it needs more doctors, nurses and support staff, and the extra investment necessary to deliver them.”
We’d love to hear what you think of these stories. If you’re a women aged over 50, have you taken part in the government’s breast cancer screening programme? And what do you make of this latest potential revelation in the fight against cancer? Finally, how (if at all) do you see the Junior Doctors dispute ending? Let us know in the comments below!