A packed House of Lords stood and applauded after former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell made one of the most emotional speeches heard in parliament for many years about her battle against brain cancer.
Looking frail and weak, wearing a hat to hide the effects of chemotherapy and with her voice occasionaly faltering and croaking, she spoke for 10 minutes appealing for Government backing for new cancer treatment.
The Health and Social Care Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, sat on the step in front of the throne in the Lords throughout her speech and joined in the standing ovation and applause.
And at the end of a 90-minute debate, junior minister Lord O’Shaughnessy told peers Lady Jowell had offered hope to cancer sufferers and he promised the Government would act on her plea.
After the debate, as she left the Lords chamber, Baroness Jowell told Sky News she had been encouraged by the minister’s response and was confident that the Government would now take action on brain cancer.
In her speech opening the debate, she called on the Government to back a campaign called the Eliminate Cancer Initiative (ECI), led by a professor from Texas, which is linking clinical trials in different countries and attempting to improve research and treatment.
And in a powerful finale to her speech, surrounded by many of the Labour politicians she served in government under Tony Blair, she quoted Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s last words: “Do not be afraid.”
With many peers on all sides of the Lords chamber struggling to hold back tears, she added bravely: “I am not afraid, but 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.
“All we now ask is that doctors and health systems learn to do the same. 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.”
And speaking slowly, she ended, before the loud applause and standing ovation: “I hope this debate will give hope to other cancer patients like me. So that we can live well with cancer, not just be dying of it. All of us. For longer.”
Lord O’Shaughnessy said Lady Jowell had offered hope to cancer sufferers, raising politicians’ sights and demanding they work harder to tackle this “terrible disease she suffers with such dignity”.
He said: “It is the right challenge and one I’m prepared to accept on behalf of the Government. Our efforts will not waver until the scourge of cancer no longer robs us of the ones we love.”
Lady Jowell thanked the minister for his response and said she felt the Lords had made “real progress forward” as she was again loudly applauded from the red benches and the public galleries.
At the start of the debate, Lady Jowell began her powerful speech by telling her own cancer story, which began on 24 May when she was on her way to talk about Sure Start projects in east London.
“I got into a taxi but couldn’t speak,” she said. “I had two powerful seizures. I was taken to hospital. Two days later, I was told that I had a brain tumour, 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 radio and chemotherapy.”
And then she spoke about how brain cancer – known medically as GBM – had been neglected.
“To put it in context, across the country, GBM strikes less than 3,000 people in England every year,” she said. “It generally has a very poor prognosis.
“But less than 2% of cancer research funding in the UK is spent on brain tumours. No vital new 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 identify the tumour. But it is only available in about half of the brain surgery centres in England. It must be extended to all of them.
“Cancer is a tough challenge to all health systems, and particularly to our cherished NHS.
“We have the worst cancer survival rate in western Europe. Partly because diagnosis is too slow. Brain tumours grow very quickly. And they are hard to spot. However, there is reason for hope.”
She said the ECI campaign aimed to do three things:
• First, link patients and doctors across the world through a clinical trials network,
• Secondly, speed up the use of adaptive trials
• And thirdly, build a global data base to improve research and patient care.
She added: “Usually, drug trials test only one drug at a time, take years, and cost a fortune. New adaptive trials can test many treatments at the same time. They speed up the process and save a lot of money.”
ECI would focus initially on brain cancer because it is so tough to beat, said Baroness Jowell.
“So it’s all about sharing knowledge at every level between everyone involved,” she said. “If we achieve this we will go a long way to crack GBM and other cancers too.
“For what would every cancer patient want? To know that the best, the latest science was being used – wherever in the world it was developed, whoever began it.
“What else do they want? They need to know they have a community around them – supporting and caring. Being practical and kind.
“For while doctors look at the big picture, we can all be a part of the human-sized picture.”