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‘Ticking timebomb’: Millions of cancer patients waiting for screenings delayed due to Covid-19

Estimated 2.1 million patients awaiting screening for breast, cervical and bowel cancer, says Cancer Research UK

Samuel Lovett
Monday 01 June 2020 12:53 BST
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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the diagnosis, treatment and care of millions of cancer patients, research has shown, raising concern that the UK is facing a “ticking timebomb” as it emerges from lockdown.

Macmillan Cancer Support has warned that cancer is at risk of becoming “the forgotten ‘C’” amid the Covid-19 crisis, with the NHS currently overwhelmed by an extensive backlog of cases.

An estimated 2.1 million patients are awaiting screening for breast, cervical and bowel cancer, according to Cancer Research UK, while 290,000 have missed out on referrals to confirm or rule out the presence of tumours.

Such services, which include routine screening appointments, were formally paused in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland during the pandemic, while in England invitations to screening hubs were not sent out.

Covid-19 has also forced the postponement of surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy for at least 21,600 patients, Cancer Research UK added, procedures that would have otherwise removed or reduced tumours that may have since grown or spread.

Professor Charles Swanton, chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, said: “Delays to diagnosis and treatment could mean that some cancers will become inoperable. Patients shouldn’t need to wait for this to be over before getting the treatment they need.”

A separate study by University College London recently showed that several hospitals across England and Northern Ireland had reported an average 60 per cent drop in people attending chemotherapy appointments during the coronavirus crisis.

The UK government has been called upon to rapidly restore cancer care and deal with the backlog in treatment while keeping staff and patients safe, amid growing concerns that the coronavirus fallout could lead to an increase in the number of people dying from cancer.

Warning of the country’s “ticking cancer timebomb”, Sara Bainbridge, head of policy and influence at Macmillan Cancer Support, told The Independent: “We may have passed the ‘peak’ of Covid-19 in the UK, but it’s only now that the mist is clearing that we are beginning to see the far-ranging impact that the pandemic has had on cancer care.

“At Macmillan, we are concerned about the long-term consequences for people living with cancer, as we urge the government to set out exactly how it will support the NHS to rapidly rebuild cancer services. This challenge is not insignificant.

“Cancer must not become the ‘forgotten ‘C” during this pandemic. We cannot say strongly enough that if you are experiencing the signs of cancer you must urgently contact your GP to get checked out. Don’t put it off, and don’t think you’re not a priority during coronavirus.”

In Scotland, official figures show the number of people dying from cancer is already 5 per cent higher than the five-year average since the nationwide lockdown began. In England and Wales, Macmillan analysis revealed there were at least 500 more deaths from cancer than average in March and April alone.

Research from the charity has also found three in four people with cancer in the UK (77 per cent) said they had completely avoided medical settings in the previous week, which equates to more than two million patients across the country.

And those with worrying symptoms, including lumps on their breasts, frequent urination, or abnormal skin growth, have been reluctant to make appointments with GPs.

Under normal circumstances, around two in three people with cancer in England (62 per cent) would be first diagnosed following a referral by their GP.

However, during the last week of March, there were 1.8 million fewer GP appointments of all types compared with the first week of of the month, and 2.7 million fewer face-to-face appointments.

Prior to the arrival of Covid-19 in the UK, millions of cancer patients were already facing the worst waiting times since records began in 2010, with these delays now expected to be further extended in the coming weeks and months.

Although hospital cancer services have begun increasing as the Covid-19 pandemic has eased, treatment and care procedures are due to be constrained by strict infection control measures.

Only limited numbers will be able to use CT or MRI scans each day as machines will have to be cleaned, while chemotherapy will be restricted to a few patients at a time due to social-distancing rules.

To keep both patients and staff safe from Covid-19, cancer health services have demanded an increase in daily coronavirus testing for their staff.

Cancer Research UK is calling for between 21,000 and 37,000 coronavirus tests to be carried out each day amongst health care workers to ensure Covid-protected safe spaces for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Ms Bainbridge added: “To ensure healthcare settings like hospitals and GP surgeries protect people from infection will require enough staff, regular testing, plentiful supplies of PPE and maintaining ways of working which allow people to adhere to social distancing.”

A spokesperson for the NHS said: “Even though more people than ever started NHS cancer treatment in March [30,000], coronavirus has turned millions of lives upside down.

“Cancer services are largely now open, ready and able to receive all patients who need care, so the critical point is that anyone who is concerned about a possible cancer symptom should contact their GP practice and come forward for a check-up.”

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