Lack of Specialist Nurses could delay or cause rationing of chemotherapy treatments

Ali Stunt talks to Channel 5 about potential delays in chemotherapy treatments at Churchill Hospital, Oxford

On Wednesday 10th January, I drove up to Oxford at the request of Channel 5/ITN News to give my comments for the evening news bulletin on a memo leaked by the Head of Chemotherapy at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford to the Times newspaper.

In the memo, Dr Andrew Weaver blamed a 40 per cent shortage in specialist cancer nurses trained to administer chemotherapy medication as the reason why the Churchill Hospital would be considering delaying the start of chemotherapy treatments by up to four weeks and/or rationing treatment by reducing the number of cycles [of chemotherapy] patients receive.

While the Churchill Hospital denied that any current chemotherapy services have been affected by staff shortages, I firmly believe that this is a shot across the bow from senior clinicians to highlight the fact that teams are stretched almost to breaking point.

The UK has some of the lowest cancer survival rates in the developed world. Pancreatic cancer patients, who are already on the back foot because of delays in diagnosis, will be further disadvantaged if they have to delay starting chemotherapy treatment or their treatment is rationed. This will undoubtedly have an impact on life expectancy and possibly quality of life, as chemotherapy can also help palliate the symptoms of the disease, such as pain.

What we have to remember is that behind every statistic, there is a patient; a mother, father, brother, sister, aunt or uncle, all of whom are struggling to cope with a cancer diagnosis and do not need additional anguish over whether they will be able to receive the appropriate treatments in a timely manner. Treatments need to be started as soon as possible to help prolong life, relieve symptoms and for patients to spend more time with their families.

The Churchill Hospital example may well be the tip of the iceberg and one wonders whether similar conversations may be being had at other cancer units across the UK.

The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the wider government needs to tackle this immediately before this becomes a national and more severe issue and before cancer patients die prematurely.

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