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Has COVID-19 affected your cancer treatment?

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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We can all say we have been negatively impacted from Coronavirus, especially when it comes to our health. During the pandemic and the lockdown, since 23rd March 2020, there have been patients who have either missed treatments, have had delayed or incorrect diagnosis or simply have not been tested or screened even when showing worrying symptoms.

The statistics

It has been reported, about 2.4 million people in the UK are waiting for cancer treatment, tests or screening due to the disruption of the lockdown, according to Cancer Research UK.  It has also been reported that approximately 2.1 million people have missed out on screening and around 290,000 people with symptoms of cancer have not been referred to a hospital for testing. It has been estimated that around 23,000 cancers may have gone undiagnosed during the lockdown.  

The number of patients urgently referred by GPs, with cancer symptoms, fell from 181,873 in March, to 79,573 in April. In April 2019 there were 199,217 referrals.

Worryingly, 88% of people urgently referred for cancer concerns in April, were seen by consultants within two weeks, whereas the target is 93%.

Figures reveal that the number of people assessed for cancer, following an initial referral, dropped to 79,573 in April 2020, a fall of 60% compared with the previous year. Furthermore, the number of patients commencing their cancer care treatment fell to 10,800, a fall of 20% below the 2019 figure.

The target for cancer treatment is that 85% should start their cancer treatment within two months of a referral but, in April 2020, this was 74.3%. In April 2019 it was 79.4%.

The risk of delay in cancer treatment and diagnosis

We all know how important it is to be diagnosed with cancer as soon as possible, subsequently commencing treatment in a timely manner to prevent the growth and spread of cancer and, hopefully, provide effective treatment.    Coronavirus may have deprived many patients of a longer life or ever being cancer free. 

During the lockdown many treatments and surgeries have been delayed as there has been more focus on caring and treating patients infected with coronavirus. Although screening programmes were not officially stopped in England, an estimated 2.1 million people who would normally be routinely screened missed out, according to Cancer Research UK.

Cancer patient fighting for his life

A recent news article in The Guardian, has highlighted just how fatal a delay can be.  A young patient is ‘fighting for his life’ due to a delay by the NHS. This patient’s cancer went undetected as normal NHS care came to a halt due to Coronavirus. He developed symptoms and contacted his GP in March 2020, but it was not until June 2020 he was offered a scan and was told he has cancer. The patient may lose is life to cancer as he was not seen and treated quick enough. The patient was told, the type of cancer he has is particularly aggressive and fast-growing.  This is likely to be just one of many patients who have suffered a late diagnosis and, perhaps, has been denied the opportunity to survive cancer.  

Will the delays create a backlog upon the NHS and a lasting affect?

Certainly, yes it will. Although NHS England have been urging people to seek medical help if they display worrying symptoms, there have been a lot of services that have scaled back, whether its chemotherapy or surgeries.

Professor Sullivan has said, there are a huge number of patients who would be stuck in a back log when cancer services open for treatment, creating “an enormous challenge to hospitals”. He said it could take up to 6 – 12 months for cancer services to return to normal, but only if measures were to be unlocked “very quickly”.

It is time the government steps it up and listens to the medical professionals to avoid delayed treatment, delayed diagnosis and, or errors being made.

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