Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Friday the formation of a national agency to co-ordinate the fight against cancer, a long-awaited strategy that many involved in the battle say will help iron out inequities in prevention and care that currently face patients in different parts of country.
Ottawa has dedicated $260-million over five years to the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, fulfilling a promise Mr. Harper made during the last federal election campaign.
"Cancer strikes without warning, plays no favourites and touches all of us," the prime minister said during the announcement, made at Montreal General Hospital.
Calling it a "clearing house" for the latest information on cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, Mr. Harper said the new agency could keep 1.2 million Canadians from developing cancer in the next 30 years and prevent more than 400,000 cancer deaths.
"We believe that through comprehensive sharing of information, surveillance, better diagnostics, that we can achieve real significant gains over a period of time," said Mr. Harper. "This has been a plan developed by experts working in the health-care field itself."
"We believe that it can save lives."
Federal Health Minister Tony Clement said the new agency will address the lack of collaboration and information sharing among provinces and territories, which many say has led to a checkerboard of care across the country.
"This is better clinical practice guidelines, this is better research, better knowledge transfer . . . this is better prevention, better screening," Mr. Clement told reporters in Montreal. "This is the first time this country has seen this on any disease and . . . will be a harbinger of things to come in many other areas, as well."
The agency will operate at arm's length from the federal government. Mr. Clement said Ottawa has no intention of stepping on provincial-territorial turf.
Jeff Lozon, the CEO of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto who will chair the agency, said he is well aware of the difficulties of getting the various levels of government to work towards the same objective, but "this is really a terrible national health challenge and we shouldn't let jurisdiction overwhelm our good judgments."
Cancer organizations were quick to praise the new partnership.
"It goes way beyond cancer care," said Barbara Whylie, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society, which has been among those lobbying Ottawa for a national strategy for years. "It's about the whole cancer challenge."
"Ultimately, it's going to mean that fewer Canadians develop cancer, it's going to mean that Canadians right across the country, wherever they live - whether it's in large centres with tertiary care or small communities - will have access to programs and services that are based on the best possible knowledge that's available out of international (medical) literature and local learning."
The society says 153,000 new cases of cancer are expected to be diagnosed in Canada by the end of this year, and more than 70,000 Canadians will die from the disease.
"So from our perspective," said Ms. Whylie, "we visualize a Canada a couple of decades out where we have many fewer cases being diagnosed and where the cancer journey for people who are affected by it is much more tolerable and has much better outcomes than are currently the case."
"Political leadership was missing in action on the war on cancer," added cancer survivor Pat Kelly, an advocate for the Campaign to Control Cancer, a coalition of 55 Canadian cancer groups. "Now we've got both funding and leadership, it's time to close the gap between what we know and what we do for every Canadian family."
Dr. Simon Sutcliffe, the CEO of the B.C. Cancer Agency who will act as the agency's vice-chair, welcomed the government's commitment - the culmination of years of work by cancer-related health providers and advocacy organizations.
"This is a very significant step to actually say we are concerned about the health of 34 million Canadians, we're concerned about the rising incidence of cancer and we're prepared to do things that will make it better for all of the public and patients, irrespective of their background, their socio-economic status and their residence," Dr. Sutcliffe said from Vancouver. "And we are fighting strategically by investing in what we know and making that available to all Canadians."
While acknowledging that the $260-million, five-year strategy is an important step to having a co-ordinated national effort, Cancer Care Ontario president Terry Sullivan said it should be viewed within the overall context of cancer programs across the country.
In Ontario alone, Sullivan said, the cost of supplying a single drug - Avastin, approved to treat advanced colorectal cancer and experimentally for some other cancers - would cost about $100 million a year, while the price tag for total cancer services in the province is $2.5-billion.
"It needs to be understood that it's a good step forward from a co-ordination point of view and we hope it will help in aligning our efforts across the country," he said of the agency. "But I don't think people should expect a miraculous transformation immediately."
Mr. Lozon agreed, saying that the "creation of a new agency or the discovery of one new drug is not going to resolve the cancer issue in and of itself. This is a long-term battle - and nobody knows that better than cancer survivors."