Belfast Telegraph

Ashya King's story shouldn't be turned into a dig at the NHS

By Grace Dent

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.

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.

One moment cancer is something that happens to other families, then suddenly the call comes. At this point, like Ashya's family, 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.

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.

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.

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?

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 help for people who cut themselves, therapy for men who cut each other and counselling for girls who are being genitally cut.

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 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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