A key cancer treatment which could save lives is going to be made available to all cancer centres in England in the next year.
The NHS announcement is in response to an open letter signed by more than 200 cancer experts warning the treatment was being “rationed”, as reported exclusively by Sky News last month.
The experts had said failure to act would be a “tragic lost opportunity”.
The stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR) treatment is more precise and uses a higher dose than standard radiotherapy – cutting down the number of hospital visits vulnerable cancer patients will need to make.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens says the innovative treatment will be “potentially life-saving”.
The treatment is currently used by around half of cancer centres and was going to be fully rolled out by 2022, but experts warned urgent action needed to be taken to help deal with a backlog of cancer cases as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of cancer patients have had treatments cancelled or postponed, while fewer cancers are currently being diagnosed.
A study by the University of Birmingham estimates 36,000 cancer procedures have been cancelled in the UK.
Cancer sufferers who face delays to their treatment are more likely to suffer complications and are more at risk of dying.
Dr Clive Peedell, a consultant clinical oncologist who wrote the open letter along with Action Radiotherapy, said he applauded the decision.
“I think it’s really important during this time because we know there’s going to be a really big cancer backlog and anything we can do to increase our capacity to treat cancer patients during this time will help,” he said.
“There will certainly be patients who can have stereotactic radiotherapy instead of surgery because there’s going to be big surgical waiting lists.”
William Robinson, 83, was diagnosed with a tumour on his lung after having a stent put in his heart in March.
The great-grandfather, from Middlesbrough, received one round of the SABR treatment and said: “It was excellent. It went great and I’ve been alright since.”
He said it was a “big surprise” he had been treated so quickly and praised the staff who looked after him.
SABR will initially be used to treat some tumours in the lungs, lymph nodes and bones, but will later be expanded to treat other cancers.
It will not be suitable for everyone, but the experts are clear it will save lives – and say they already have the capacity to provide the treatment.
Professor Pat Price, chair of Action Radiotherapy, said she was “delighted” with the decision but warned April is “still an awfully long time away”.
“The trouble is, the backlog is going to start coming in the autumn so April’s going to be too late for some places,” she said.
Professor Price said there are still a number of things which will need to be done to help with the backlog – including updating the IT and machines used to carry out radiotherapy.
“We’re heading for such a problem,” she said.
“Everybody’s quite positive at the moment thinking lockdown is nearly over, but the health problems are just starting.”