Leading specialists warned yesterday that thousands of patients with advanced breast or ovarian cancer are not being given the latest drugs that have been shown both to lengthen and improve the quality of life in sufferers.
Some of Britain's leading cancer specialists have protested to the Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, that Britain devotes too little to buying anti- cancer drugs.
The NHS now spends three times as much on indigestion pills as it does on anti-cancer drugs, and spending on drugs for chemotherapy in Britain is one-tenth that of the US and a quarter that of France and Germany.
The NHS, the doctors say, spends pounds 170m a year on anti-cancer drugs, including a total chemotherapy drug bill of only pounds 58m, compared to pounds 250m on just one type of ulcer pill.
What is particularly worrying the specialists is that the availability of new chemotherapy drugs such as Taxol and Taxotere, which cost around pounds 10,000 for a course of treatment that lasts six months, has effectively been rationed because different health authorities have different policies.
"The amount spent in Britain on anti-cancer drugs is pathetic... less than half the country is funding Taxol for ovarian cancer despite the fact that there is very good data that for patients quantity of life is improved as well as quality," says Dr Rob Coleman, an oncologist at Western Park Hospital, Sheffield.
"Some women are being denied these drugs. I have been doing a clinic this morning where patients have been having this kind of treatment with supplies we had on clinical trial.
"Those trials have finished and I am now in a situation where I cannot carry on giving what I see as an effective treatment because the health authority is not funding it."
Dr Coleman is one of 11 leading cancer doctors who have signed a letter in this weekend's British Medical Journal urging more money for cancer care. They have also written to Mr Dobson.
Dr Coleman said: "We have written to Frank Dobson to try to get some of the money that is now spent on other drugs for which there is very little proof they are doing any good, moved into the cancer budget. We all realise there is not a bottomless pit, but money is wasted in some areas. Some of the ulcer drugs are being given to millions of people, and many could get by on cheaper products."
The research figures show that while pounds 170m is spent on anti-cancer drugs, pounds 1bn is set aside for drugs for gastrointestinal ills and pounds 282m goes on dermatology drugs.
The doctors, all members of the executive committee of the Association of Cancer Physicians, say that cancer survival rates in Britain compare poorly with those in many other Western economies.Reuse content