It was a great privilege today to speak in the debate secured by John Lamont MP on World Cancer Day. We are all extremely cautious, perhaps overcautious, of taxing our GP with what we might think are trivial, but it is sometimes the first step towards an early diagnosis of something which, if ignored, can become serious. The Government must do all it can to support research and treatment of cancer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this important debate.
It is staggering that about 4,600 women and more than 20 men in Scotland are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Sadly, few people, particularly males, realise that men can also be affected. My researcher was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 16 years ago and remains eternally grateful for the care and support she received from the national health service. Her paternal grandmother and great-aunt were of a different, less fortunate generation and lost their lives to breast cancer shortly after diagnosis, although a delay in seeking assistance was undoubtedly a factor in their demise.
Regrettably, previous generations were often reticent to seek assistance, perhaps due to a lack of knowledge or embarrassment. Encouraging openness and interaction, as World Cancer Day does, and media campaigns from the national health service and various cancer charities are vital if we are to empower people through education and advocacy, including peer support, to improve their quality of life and life expectancy following a cancer diagnosis.
I welcome the mention of embarrassment. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that we have a particular job to do with men to get beyond the embarrassment of talking about bowels, bowel motions and other bodily functions? If people cannot talk about it with their families, they will struggle to talk about it with a GP.
I totally agree; I am of the embarrassed generation. It is challenging for males—I concede that it is men in particular—to go to the general practitioner, but we need to educate them about making that first contact and being conscious of the risk. It is particularly my generation; the generation following are a bit less self-conscious and more eager to go to the GP, where they will find that help.
As a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, I have become acutely aware of the importance and benefits of research. In 2014, the city of Glasgow, not far from my constituency, hosted the European breast cancer conference. Such conferences bring together experts in their respective fields to share knowledge and experience for the benefit of patients and to consider preventive measures for the future such as developments in immunotherapy that harness the body’s immune system to target cancer cells. As I understand it, such developments may be able to complement, if not replace, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, the side effects of which many breast cancer patients find more challenging than the cancer itself.
Treatment has very much improved, recognising the importance of body image in an era when the media often seek to portray the perfect person. The charity Breast Cancer Care stages regular fashion shows in which those who take to the catwalk have themselves been cancer patients. The male and female models, resplendent in their latest outfits, send a very clear message that they have beaten or are robustly fighting cancer.
Tamoxifen, a common medication for breast cancer treatment, is now just one of a range of drugs available to patients. It was heartening to learn of the Scottish Medicines Consortium’s decision to approve the life-extending drug Perjeta for routine use in treating secondary breast cancer on Scotland’s national health service. Compared with existing treatments, the drug apparently has the potential to offer valuable time to those with incurable HER2-positive secondary breast cancer.
Nowadays, cancer is treated by multi-disciplinary teams that include GPs, surgeons, oncologists, radiographers, radiologists and clinical nurse specialists. It is crucial that we have appropriate succession planning so that we can replace those vital experts as they reach retirement age or change career for whatever reason. It is quite concerning that 20% of breast radiologists in Scotland are predicted to retire before 2025, according to the charity Breast Cancer Now. We need to get the wheels in motion to replace those very important individuals.
Cancer is a challenge to our society. It changes people’s lives in different ways, and sadly some go on to develop lymphoedema. However, collectively we can meet that challenge. Some countries have a lesser incidence, so it may be prudent, as an aspect of self-help, to reflect on diet and lifestyle choices in the UK that may have a bearing on development or outcomes. The potential effects of obesity, cigarettes and alcohol need to be seriously addressed. That apart, we need to focus on the future needs of the researchers and medical professionals to protect the population who are at risk of cancer.
Finally, my constituents and I thank the national health service professionals, the volunteer drivers, the penguins of Dundee, the marathon runners from the borders and the charities. They all make the challenge of living and dealing with cancer that wee bit easier.