How cancer treatments are made available

Cancer treatments are usually developed over years of careful research. This helps to show:

  • if and how the treatment works
  • which cancers it can be used to treat
  • what the side effects are
  • how it compares to current treatments.

This research is used to work out whether a treatment is effective and safe enough to be made widely available.

Most new cancer drugs are licensed by the European Medicines Agency. Until a new drug has a licence, it cannot be prescribed by the NHS.

Some drugs that have not yet been licensed may be available through the Early Access to Medicines Scheme (EAMS).

How cancer treatments are developed

This information is about access to all types of cancer treatments. When we use the word ‘treatment’, this also includes drugs used to treat cancer.

Cancer treatments are usually developed over years of careful research. This helps to show:

  • if and how the treatment works
  • which cancers it can be used to treat
  • what the side effects are
  • how it compares to current treatments.

This research is used to work out whether a treatment is effective and safe enough to be made widely available. Every treatment has side effects, but the research can tell us whether the benefits of the treatment usually outweigh the risks. Drugs must show that the benefits outweigh the risks in order to get a license.

In the UK, the two organisations that license drugs are:

Most new cancer drugs are licensed by the European Medicines Agency. Until a new drug has a licence, it cannot be prescribed by the NHS.

A drug is licensed to be used in a particular way, for a specific group of patients. For example, a drug that is licensed to treat breast cancer should not be used to treat any other type of cancer. If new research shows that the drug is also helpful in treating another type of cancer, the drug’s developer has to apply for another licence.

Early Access to Medicines

Some drugs that have not yet been licensed may be available through the Early Access to Medicines Scheme (EAMS). This aims to give people access to drugs that have shown positive results in a research trial, but may still be part of ongoing research or waiting to be licensed.

This means that researchers may not yet know how well a drug will work or what all the side effects might be.

If you think an EAMS drug might be suitable for you, your doctor must agree and apply to the scheme for you. You can see a list of drugs available through the scheme at gov.uk


How the NHS decides about cancer treatments

Several organisations advise the NHS about cancer treatments:

These organisations give advice to the NHS based on how a new treatment compares to treatments that are already available, and whether it is cost-effective. If the advice is to provide a treatment, the NHS should do this within a number of months. The time frame is different across the UK and can depend on the treatment.

It is the doctor’s decision whether to use a treatment or prescribe a drug for a person with cancer. If a treatment is not usually available, doctors may still be able to access it for some people in some situations.


Why some cancer treatments are difficult to access

Across the UK, the NHS is split into smaller areas called local health bodies. Each nation has a different name for local health bodies:

  • In England, they are called Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).
  • In Scotland and Wales, they are called health boards.
  • In Northern Ireland, they are called health and social care trusts.

Local health bodies must make sure the treatments they provide:

  • will benefit the people in their area
  • are good value for money.

This means that they may decide not to provide or pay for some treatments.

Local health bodies will often follow any advice from NICE or the other organisations in their area. If no advice has been given, the local health body makes their own decision. If there is not enough evidence to show that a treatment is effective and safe, they may decide not to provide it.

Local health bodies keep a list of the treatments and drugs that they do not usually provide or pay for. But in some situations, they can go against this list. Each local health body must have a process in place to make decisions about individual situations.

Back to Coming to your decision

Finding out your treatment options

Knowing basic information about your type of cancer and different treatments options can help you to make an informed treatment decision.

Making your decision

If  you’re struggling to come to a decision about treatment, try following these five steps.