“What gives a life meaning is not only how it is lived, but how it draws to a close.” – Tessa Jowell’s last speech to Parliament


“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 2% 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.”

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