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The ultimate guide to going PRIVATE for cancer treatment amid diabolical NHS waits

If dealt the devastating blow that you have cancer, you could be forgiven for not wanting to be treated on the NHS. 

After all, horror stories of the swamped health service’s ‘cancer catastrophe’ have dominated headlines over the past few years, with the UK finding itself ‘bottom of the pile’ in survival rates for several common cancers. 

Chaotic scenes facing the thousands of cancer patients receiving NHS care every day are comparable to ‘Heathrow on a Bank Holiday’. 

That’s how one of the nation’s most renowned oncologists, Professor Karol Sikora, bluntly put it, anyway.

So, is worth going private? 

Margaret McCaul was forced to spend £27,000 of her life savings for private surgery after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer when faced with NHS delays for treatment

Claire Rayner, journalist and famed Agony Aunt, shared her 'guilt' over using private health care to 'jump the queue' after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Mrs Rayner was pictured here in 2008

Claire Rayner, journalist and famed Agony Aunt, shared her ‘guilt’ over using private health care to ‘jump the queue’ after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Mrs Rayner was pictured here in 2008

Well, it depends on who you ask, says Professor Sikora. 

Undoubtedly, there are obvious benefits. For instance, you don’t need to wait months — giving the disease precious time to spread — for answers. 

‘What private care does is allow you to buy out of any delays,’ he told MailOnline.

Under strict NHS targets, trusts must ensure at least 85 per cent of newly-diagnosed patients begin treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral. That includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or even state-of-the-art immunotherapy. 

Professor Sikora,  former chief of the World Health Organization’s cancer programme, said: ‘That target isn’t met in 40 per cent of NHS hospitals around the country.’ 

In fact, nationally the NHS has never hit the goal. 

Rates currently sit at around 62 per cent, meaning almost 10,000 patients each month face potentially time critical delays in their battle against a disease that will strike half of us in our lifetimes. 

Similarly, the NHS in England has never hit its 31-day cancer treatment target. 

That goal, introduced in April 2022 alongside the 62-day one, states that 96 per cent of patients start cancer treatment within a month of a consultant deciding they need care for the disease. 

And only once in 34 months has the NHS met its other target, ensuring that 75 per cent patients with cancer symptoms are either diagnosed or have the disease ruled out within 28 days of an urgent referral.

Data shows around 250,000 people in England wait with bated breath to find out if they have cancer each month, but more than one in four have to wait longer than they should.  

The dismal NHS cancer performance over the last few years has seen an increasing number of Brits opting to go private instead, choosing to fork out thousands to get their disease treated privately and ‘jump the queue’.

This includes Margaret McCaul, of Lanarkshire, Scotland, who last year shared how she spent £27,000 of her life savings to avoid having to wait up to three months for ovarian cancer surgery on the NHS.

Speaking at the time, Mrs McCaul, in her 50s, said it was ‘disgusting’ patients had to resort to such measures simply to survive. 

‘Cancer doesn’t wait for the NHS to get its act together on waiting lists,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t care if you can afford to pay. 

‘While we were in a position to be able to do what we did, it was still our life savings that we used. But not everyone will be in a position to do that.’

Mrs McCaul, who admitted she might struggle to fork up cash if her cancer returns, is not alone, however. 

Latest figures from the Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN), which shares information about performance and fees of private treatment, shows there has been 319,340 admissions for private chemotherapy since 2019. 

Rates in 2022 were around 4 per cent higher than pre-Covid, showing a slight trend upwards, as opposed to a wave of cancer patients deserting the NHS. 

Chemo is only one way of treating cancer, however. Others include using targeted radiation and surgery with many patients receiving a combination of treatments for their cancer. 

For the vast majority going private, such treatment is funded through medical insurance. 

Some policies are offered through generous work benefit schemes.

Others are available with annual premiums of around £1,000, though these can vary depending on factors like age and known health conditions. 

Hundreds of patients choose to pay out of pocket for the treatment, however.

Professor Sikora, an oncologist with 50 years’ experience, who is now based at the University of Buckingham, said it was undeniable that more patients were switching to private care rather than deal with the ‘Heathrow on a Bank Holiday’ state of NHS cancer care. 

‘There’s only three ways to pay for healthcare, tax, insurance or cash,’ he said.

‘And what we’re seeing is an increase in the cash.’

Data provided by private health insurance information company myTribe Insurance shows the average cost of private cancer treatment varies from about £28,000 to over £130,000, depending on the specific form of the disease. 

Ironically, deadlier types like bowel cancer, with fewer treatment options, tend to be less expensive.

Ones like breast cancer — where the majority of women struck by the disease survive for 10-years or more after diagnosis — can require months of ongoing treatment, with bills quickly racking up.

While this cost can be covered in-part or full by health insurance, Professor Sikora said this can ‘prohibitively expensive’ for some people, particularly the elderly. 

Instead, he advised people with the means to: ‘Keep £10,000 spare somewhere, in a building society account, the highest interest rate you can get.

‘Use it to buy yourself out of delays, if you need an endoscopy, if you need a CT scan, to get it done privately.’

He said the alternative option — paying for cancer care completely privately — is out of the reach of most people.   

‘The trouble with private cancer treatment is that the overall costs are eye-watering,’ he said. 

‘You also have no idea how much it’s going to cost.’

Compared to a specific operation like a hip replacement, Professor Sikora said ‘you never know how long cancer care could be’.

Chemotherapy — a brutal but effective treatment, which indiscriminately attacks the body to destroy tumours — was one of the major costs of going private.

Here's how much the average case of cancer costs to treat by four common cancer types. The figures, from myTribe Insurance, represent the lifetime cost of treatment, including diagnosis, treatment itself and ongoing monitoring for the disease

Here’s how much the average case of cancer costs to treat by four common cancer types. The figures, from myTribe Insurance, represent the lifetime cost of treatment, including diagnosis, treatment itself and ongoing monitoring for the disease 

Clinics typically charge a flat fee of £1,200 then add the cost of the drug itself which can run between £500 to £10,000 per cycle, Professor Sikora said. 

Thus, Professor Sikora recommends patients consider a combination of private and NHS treatment to bypass delays and speed up their NHS treatment. 

‘It’s about making the system work for you,’ he told MailOnline. 

‘And that’s exactly what you have to do with the NHS. 

‘If you are paying as you go use your money efficiently and only pay when you need to, when there’s going to be a serious delay.

‘The system is rotten we all know it, but the actual delivery of care is fantastic it’s just getting there, and smart patients work out how to do it.’

He said another advantage of going private is how doctors valued patients’ time. ‘If you come for radiotherapy at 10o’clock, you’d be out by 10.27,’ he said.

‘In the first year of diagnosis you might make over 100 visits to hospital [for] blood tests chemotherapy, diagnostics and so on. That’s going to take time out of your life, so making it quick and efficient is reasonable.’

But he added that a potential disadvantage is that if you are hoping between NHS and private care some health service medics do take offence and you may have to combat an ‘anti-private sentiment’. 

Professor Sikora also warned that while private cancer care was currently a get-out clause for patients with means, this is starting to shift.

He said that demand is so high that ‘even the capacity in the private sector is filling up.’ 

Additionally, he claimed some NHS medics may take offence to patients who choose to hop between private and taxpayer-funded care. 

Professor Sikora, who previously set up private cancer care facilities in the UK, described this as an ‘anti-private sentiment’.

Cancer patients, like any in Britain, are perfectly entitled to have their care be a mix of NHS and private, however. 

However, charities say this is not a way to jump the queue. Private referrals or results for tests are given the same weight as NHS equivalents, meaning you could still face month-long waits for follow-ups. 

But private cancer care comes with other perks, too. 

The prestigious London Clinic offers private patients a number of meals that are likely to feature on restaurant menus, such as this gold-leaf dressed dessert offering. Source: The London Clinic Instagram

The prestigious London Clinic offers private patients a number of meals that are likely to feature on restaurant menus, such as this gold-leaf dressed dessert offering. Source: The London Clinic Instagram 

Edible flowers are also a menu option you'd likely never see on an NHS meal. Source: The London Clinic Instagram

Edible flowers are also a menu option you’d likely never see on an NHS meal. Source: The London Clinic Instagram

Artisan hams are another feature of The London Clinic meals that their patients could enjoy. Source: The London Clinic Instagram

Artisan hams are another feature of The London Clinic meals that their patients could enjoy. Source: The London Clinic Instagram

Cold sandwiches are some of the best options and NHS patient might hope to receive

While other patients, aren't as fortunate, with one patient highlighting this particularly unappetising NHS meal to MailOnline previously

This is a far cry from even the most tasty NHS offering and miles ahead of some of the worst examples on record

Their facilities are typically more updated and modern, almost like hotels, compared to dated and sometimes crumbling NHS infrastructure.

For instance, Kate Middleton, who last week revealed her own shock cancer battle, is an avid fan of the prestigious The London Clinic, having had abdominal surgery there in January. 

The clinic, a premier destination for royals, celebrities and politicians seeking medical treatment, has an in-house concierge, en-suite bathrooms for patients as well as air conditioning in their rooms. 

In comparison, some patients in NHS cancer wards have had to contend with raw sewage leaking into the facilities they are being cared in. 

Hospital food is also on the whole better, typically made fresh on site in kitchens run by top chefs, compared to famously questionable NHS fare. 

Menus at the London Clinic, for example, feature expensive artisan hams, and desserts dressed with edible flowers and gold-leaf. 

This stands in striking contrast to cold sandwiches, watery gravies, and single, occasionally rotting, baked potatoes that have become synonymous with NHS cuisine. 

Professor Pat Price, an oncologist and founder of the Catch Up With Cancer, said the extent and exacerbation of the NHS cancer crisis ‘beggars belief’. 

She told MailOnline: ‘Despite every important cancer metric worsening and patients enduring longer waits for treatment, there’s still no dedicated cancer plan in sight. 

‘There absolutely needs to be more political will behind getting more capacity, resources, and planning into the cancer service, so that everyone can get their treatment on time.’

Richard Wells, director of healthcare informatics at PHIN, said: ‘The use of the private sector for chemotherapy pre-dates the Covid pandemic and the increases that have been seen in the NHS waiting list.

Around 664,000 people in the UK sought private treatment in the first nine months of 2023. It marks a seven per cent jump on the previous record of 618,000 set over the same time period in 2022

Around 664,000 people in the UK sought private treatment in the first nine months of 2023. It marks a seven per cent jump on the previous record of 618,000 set over the same time period in 2022

Cataract surgery in quarter three was the most popular private procedure (17,300), followed by chemotherapy (14,500). Fresh research, published in the Lancet Oncology, last week revealed cancer survival rates in the UK are lagging 15 years behind other major countries because of a lack of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Hip and knee replacements and epidural injections were other in-demand options

Cataract surgery in quarter three was the most popular private procedure (17,300), followed by chemotherapy (14,500). Fresh research, published in the Lancet Oncology, last week revealed cancer survival rates in the UK are lagging 15 years behind other major countries because of a lack of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Hip and knee replacements and epidural injections were other in-demand options

‘Admissions for therapeutic chemotherapy were only slightly up in 2022 compared to 2019.’

He added that current figures for 2023 look like they could be lower than the year prior though data for the final quarter has not yet been finalised. 

Chris Steele, founder of myTribe Insurance, said while many consider private medical insurance to be expensive, it pales in comparison to paying for cancer treatment privately. 

‘When you see the underlying cost of treating diseases such as cancer privately, you get an idea why premiums are what they are,’ he said. 

‘While many people could likely find the money to have a private hip-op or knee surgery, the figures involved in treating cancer are simply eye-watering and out of reach of the vast majority.’  

Claire Rayner, journalist and famed Agony Aunt, shared her ‘guilt’ over using private health care to ‘jump the queue’ and get her breast cancer seen quicker than if she would have used the NHS. 

Mrs Rayner, a former nurse and president of the Patients’ Association, a body dedicated to supporting the rights of patients, died in 2010. 

It’s not just NHS cancer care that is driving Brits to go private. 

PHIN data shows that around 664,000 people in the UK sought private treatment in the first nine months of 2023.

It marks a seven per cent jump on the previous record of 618,000 set over the same time period in 2022.  

They join NHS England’s own chair Richard Meddings who admitted in 2022, when the ex-banker was in the running for the top job, that he uses private healthcare.

Cancer care in the UK has been thrown into the spotlight this month, after The Princess of Wales revealing her own battle with the disease.

Both cancer charities and the NHS have reporting a surge in visits to their online cancer resources following Kate Middleton’s emotional revelation last week. 

Kate’s cancer battle in her own words: The Princess of Wales’ emotional video statement in full 

I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you, personally, for all the wonderful messages of support and for your understanding whilst I have been recovering from surgery.

It has been an incredibly tough couple of months for our entire family, but I’ve had a fantastic medical team who have taken great care of me, for which I am so grateful.

In January, I underwent major abdominal surgery in London and at the time, it was thought that my condition was non-cancerous. The surgery was successful. However, tests after the operation found cancer had been present. My medical team therefore advised that I should undergo a course of preventative chemotherapy and I am now in the early stages of that treatment.

This of course came as a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family.

As you can imagine, this has taken time. It has taken me time to recover from major surgery in order to start my treatment. But, most importantly, it has taken us time to explain everything to

George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be ok.

As I have said to them; I am well and getting stronger every day by focusing on the things that will help me heal; in my mind, body and spirits.

Having William by my side is a great source of comfort and reassurance too. As is the love, support and kindness that has been shown by so many of you. It means so much to us both.

We hope that you will understand that, as a family, we now need some time, space and privacy while I complete my treatment. My work has always brought me a deep sense of joy and I look forward to being back when I am able, but for now I must focus on making a full recovery.

At this time, I am also thinking of all those whose lives have been affected by cancer. For everyone facing this disease, in whatever form, please do not lose faith or hope. You are not alone.

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