Ashya King: Was the NHS's choice of cancer treatment right or wrong? Let's not go there

At the heart of this episode is an uplifting story about a little boy – the rest is petty political point-scoring

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The Independent Online

The news that the five-year-old brain-tumour patient Ashya King is now free of cancer is wonderful, heart-warming stuff. It’s possibly the best news to grace the media’s front pages in recent, downbeat times.

I do feel, however, wary of headlines which suggest the neat idea of a “miracle” or indeed definite “cure” for Ashya, which was the result of the King family rejecting the NHS’s care-plan and taking him to Prague for proton beam therapy.

The King family must be tired and battle-weary after 24 months of caring for Ashya. I doubt their many complex feelings can be distilled into neat sound bites about the rights and wrongs of NHS cancer care, even if, in pre-election times, we long for clear, certain argument.

Instead, the family is possibly feeling like the loved ones of millions of people blighted by cancer end up feeling – that “cancer is as cancer does” and it does what it bloody well wants. It doesn’t adhere to text books and “most likely outcomes”. It doesn’t do definitely “gone for good”.

One moment cancer is something that happens to other families, then suddenly the call comes and you’re on the podium being jabbed by its unforgiving claw, watching doctors scribble sketches of nefarious cells on backs of envelopes, offering “outlook” percentages and mumbling words you don’t understand but are too poleaxed to query.

And at this point, like Ashya’s family – like many of us do in modern times – one might take to the internet, looking for hope. I’ve never gone through this with a small child, but the desperation must be multiplied.

At least with a sick adult one can attempt to be philosophical, or take weak solace from a “life well lived”. When the King family absconded, as it were, with little Ashya in search of therapy the NHS wouldn’t agree to, I remember following the media explosion thinking that here was a battle with no winners. It was also the perfect political football.

Brett and Naghemeh King were held in prison for 24 hours. It was the nanny state gone mad. No one could quite decide whether the fact that the pair were Jehovah’s Witnesses was important or completely irrelevant. Southampton General Hospital staff were impugned with notions of neglect, penny-pinching and mismanagement.

 

In actual fact, they’d successfully removed a tumour and were about to proceed with a standard and typically successful form of radiotherapy. Social services were incompetent – so it seemed – for worrying about the Kings. Border control, some quarters seemed to suggest, should be dealing with proper immigration problems. The case was so darkly fascinating it was like a perfectly hewn subplot from the BBC’s The Thick of It.

So forgive me for feeling uneasy when headlines now suggest that Brett and Naghemeh King were correct to demand a treatment that the NHS considered and then decided against because Ashya is now “cured”. At the heart of this episode is a good-news story about a little boy. The rest is petty political point-scoring.

The whole matter of the NHS these days is so wearisome and contentious I feel it should be parked with politics and religion as things now never to be mentioned at dinner parties. Unless, that is, one wants the evening to descend rapidly into terse words and flung gravy boats.

The NHS is, in fact, doubly divisive as it’s a mixture of politics and religion. Yes, a political football, ripe for historical finger-pointing and wonkily remembered Tony Benn quotations, but then to confound reasonable debate, it invokes a cult-like status among the staunch left, especially those with an anecdotal experience of being treated well by it. All nurses are angels, the doctors are gods, any talk of its malpractice is blasphemous, anyone who criticises it is Satan.

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Ashya and his mother leaving Prague hospital after 30 PTC sessions

 

There’s no room for nuance of thought regarding the improbability of an NHS ever functioning correctly now that it’s supposed to care for 64m people who all intend to live long and to lean on it almost constantly.

With a case like Ashya King, we are pushed to tut that the NHS isn’t working. But to me, it raises the question, how can we even expect it to? All these 64m bodies have varying, modern problems.

Our GP surgeries are full to bursting. Our hospitals are oversubscribed. We want home births and anti-smoking hypnosis. We want talking therapies, anxiety and anger management. We want clinics to help people to stop eating cakes – and to help those who won’t eat at all. We want help for people who cut themselves, therapy for men who cut each other, and counselling for girls who are being genitally cut. The list is growing and open-ended.

Who is wrong or right to want these treatments? I certainly couldn’t choose.

In matters of life and death we are strong-willed and growingly highly educated. We don’t defer to hierarchy, therefore if someone in a white coat tells us we can’t have the pill, therapy or proton beam we’ve read about, we’re sharp-elbowed enough to find someone at a different door or in a different country who will.

The NHS isn’t really working: it’s just not very polite to say it, because the staff really is trying its best.

The one certainty from this tale is we all hope Ashya King prospers into a buoyant young man and a happy, healthy adult. I hope one day he looks back and laughs at the time he was the boy in the news. Cancer certainly is a tyrant. And while we all argue about his treatment, it was Ashya who showed it who was boss.

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