Personal Injury, Serious Injury & Clinical Negligence

The problem of success: how we treat survivors of cancer in the NHS

Reports published by Macmillan Cancer Support and Public Health England this week highlight an unexpected problem facing the NHS and those who might be regarded as the beneficiaries of the best treatment the service has been able to provide. Until relatively recently, cancer was considered an automatic death sentence. Although there remain concerns regarding survival rates in this country, far more people are achieving remission than even 10 years ago.

The reports identify that 66,500 women diagnosed under the age of 45 still survive more than 10 years later. There are in addition 550 survivors of prostate cancer, 10,000 survivors of colorectal cancer and 2,000 people with lung cancer still alive more than 10 years after diagnosis.

Juliet Bouverie, director of services at Macmillan highlighted the anomaly that has arisen from what would appear to be a good news story:

“There is cause to celebrate that a cancer diagnosis does not necessarily mean the death sentence it used to but the sad reality is that many people of this age may be struggling to hold down a job, support a family, and deal with the emotional impact of cancer whilst also going though treatment.

“Macmillan is urgently calling on the new government to commit to ensuring that every person with cancer receives an assessment of their emotional, physical, spiritual and social needs. Only in this way will the NHS be able to support a rapidly growing number of cancer survivors and give them a decent quality of life in the years after treatment ends.”

Patients who survive cancer continue to experience symptoms and side-effects, they may not return to full health for decades, or possibly the rest of their lives. The NHS is not prepared for the issues faced by the growing number of cancer survivors who live on after being diagnosed at a young age according to Macmillan. The charity is calling on the government to commit to funding long-term “recovery packages”.

Another facet of the problem was highlighted in the unusual case of Yearworth and others v North Bristol NHS Trust conducted by Chris Thorne, now a partner at Clarke Willmott LLP. In that case the claimants were all cancer sufferers who had regained their health but were let down by the Trust which failed to preserve semen samples stored by the men in order to retain the ability to father children if rendered infertile by the effects of chemotherapy. A commonly expressed view at the time was that having received life saving treatment from the NHS it was in some way an affront to then pursue a claim against the NHS for loss. In reality there is no merit in an argument that, having saved a patients’ life the NHS are then entitled to treat that individual negligently in future. Nor is there any level of understanding of a patients’ suffering by those who have not experienced such trauma. The individual may have been close to death, survived at massive personal cost and effort, only to find that the ultimate reason for existence – the continuation of the species by having a family – has been denied them.

The NHS must be in a position to meet the needs of the survivors of cancer and treat them to the highest standards in all respects, notwithstanding the success of the treatment provided for the disease itself.

If you have experienced unacceptable treatment within the NHS or privately contact Chris Thorne at chris.thorne@clarkewillmott.com