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Cancer Patients’ Court Case Has Implications For All Disabled People In England And Wales

November 13, 2011

Cancer patients who have to endure long journeys to receive their daily treatment are to make legal history by contesting their health authority’s decision not to provide radiotherapy services at their local hospital. The patients, some with terminal cancer, make round trips of up to six hours a day to have their 10-minute radiotherapy treatment at hospitals in the north and east of Essex.

The debilitating treatment, which lasts for up to six weeks, means they cannot drive and are dependent on others for transport. Legal experts believe that, if successful, their application for a judicial review would have far-reaching consequences for anyone with a disability.

Their claim centres on a decision by Mid Essex health authority to abandon a plan to provide radiotherapy services at Broomfield hospital in Chelmsford, considered a centre of excellence for treating several forms of cancer.

Instead, radiotherapy services are provided only at hospitals in Colchester and Southend. For patients with no access to a car, this can mean journeys into London on a train and then out to Colchester, with a taxi or bus ride to the hospital at the other end.

Helen Sale, a nurse and mother of a five-year-old son, was 38 when she started treatment for breast cancer, and began her chemotherapy treatment at Broomfield, 20 minutes from her home in South Woodham Ferrers.

She said that having to travel to Colchester had been an exhausting experience: “Radiotherapy drains you. It’s not painful, doesn’t make you sick, but it drains you physically and emotionally. It’s not safe to drive yourself.”

She quickly reached a point where she became reliant on others to help. “My husband couldn’t take any more time off work because he had taken an enormous amount of time off during the initial diagnosis, operation and chemotherapy, so my mum very kindly offered to move in with me so that she could do the driving.”

Essex’s four primary care trusts had initially backed plans to introduce radiotherapy services at Broomfield. The plans were part of the trusts’ vision for developing Essex’s cancer services to reflect the county’s ageing population. A report commissioned from independent experts suggested expanding radiotherapy services at Chelmsford “would significantly reduce travel times for a large portion of Mid Essex”.

But the plan was dropped, provoking outrage among councillors, MPs, patients and families. In testimonies submitted as part of the legal action, the daughter of one elderly cancer patient said: “We could have used the transport which for some is good, but my father [was] 90. Transport collects very early, you have to go to various locations, both on the way to and from the hospital, which could make the whole experience a day long. Far too much travel at any age, let alone 90 years.”

Another said: “I do not drive and have stage four cancer which means that I have to arrange transport with several people since I cannot use public transport beyond the Chelmsford area due to tumours in my spine, fatigue and a lowered immune system. I cannot afford taxis to and from Colchester.”

The cancer patients claim that, under section 149 of the Equality Act, a public authority must “eliminate discrimination”, and “advance equality of opportunity”.

Allison Tibbats, 44, who has terminal cancer that has spread to her bones, said the case had important implications for other patients. “We want them [Essex primary care trusts] to look at the decision again and to listen to patients. We believe this is a flawed decision that has been made without thinking about the human costs. Patients will realise they can challenge these decisions, they are not set in stone.”

Oliver Wright, of Lewis Hymanson Small Solicitors, who is representing the patients, said the legal challenge was of national interest. “This case is very important to people living in Mid Essex but it also has a significant wider public importance for disabled people across England and Wales and has the potential to influence a great many future administrative decisions in favour of disabled people.”

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