Almost 18,000 more people could die of cancer due to coronavirus, study shows

Research has shown that amid the crisis, one in 10 people would not contact their GP even if they discovered a lump or a new mole that remained for a week 

Jack Rathborn
Wednesday 29 April 2020 15:42 BST
Coronavirus: Most affected countries around the world

The coronavirus pandemic could lead to almost 18,000 more deaths from cancer in England over the next year.

There could also be a 20 per cent spike in fatalities of newly-diagnosed cancer patients, according to research by University College London (UCL) and DATA-CAN, the Health Data Research Hub for Cancer.

The figures stem from real-time hospital data for urgent cancer referrals and chemotherapy attendances, which have experienced a 76 per cent and 60 per cent fall respectively.

While England’s top cancer doctor has urged people to not hesitate in seeking help or being checked.

The advice from Professor Peter Johnson, the NHS clinical director for cancer, comes after worrying research showed nearly half of the public have concerns about seeking help.

Moreover, the poll by Portland revealed one in 10 people would not contact their GP even if they discovered a lump or a new mole that remained for a week or more.

After analysing data from 3.5 million patients, experts predicted before the Covid-19 crisis that approximately 31,354 newly-diagnosed cancer patients would die within a year in England.

But the pathogen could lead to at least 6,270 extra deaths in newly-diagnosed cancer patients — a rise of more than 20 per cent.

While the figure jumps further to 17,915 excess deaths if all people currently living with cancer are included.

There have been 21,678 fatalities from the virus at the time of writing, including more than 100 NHS staff and care home workers.

The main reasons for the increased likelihood that the public would ignore symptoms stems from a fear of contracting the virus itself by leaving quarantine.

There is also the selfless feeling from some that notifying their GP would further burden the NHS during this unprecedented time, though this has been rebuffed by Professor Johnson, who insists the opposite may be true if the public fail to seek help.

“NHS staff have made huge efforts to deal with coronavirus but they are also working hard to ensure that patients can safely access essential services such as cancer checks and urgent surgery,” said Professor Johnson.

“From online consultations to the roll-out of cancer treatment hubs, we are doing all we can to make sure patients receive the life-saving care that they need.

Staff observe a minute’s silence for key workers who have died during the pandemic

“The wishes of patients and their families will always come first, and we have to make sure that people feel safe coming to hospitals, but my message is clear: people should seek help as they always would.

“We know that finding cancer early gives us the best chance to cure it, and ignoring potential problems can have serious consequences now or in the future.”

The public can now seek online consultations to allay fears of coming into contact with others, while Covid-free cancer hubs are already set up at 19 locations around the country.

And Professor Mark Lawler, scientific lead at DATA-CAN, emphasised the potential for the situation to escalate without educating the public about the consequences the crisis could have on those affected by cancer.

He said: “We believe countries need to rapidly understand how the emergency is affecting cancer outcomes, otherwise we risk adding cancer and other underlying health conditions to the escalating death toll of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Charities, too, have also urged the public to be vigilant should concerns arise after a public information campaign was launched last week to encourage people to contact their GP or 111 if they have urgent care needs and to attend hospital if they are told they should.

Natalie Haskell, chief executive of breast cancer charity CoppaFeel!, said: “We know despite coronavirus, breast cancer remains the most common cancer in the UK and many people will be worrying about changes to their breasts during this period.

“Breast cancer is very treatable if found early and we urge people to listen to the NHS and continue to seek out their GP as normal if they are concerned about symptoms.”

While Anna Jewell, chairwoman of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce, added: “People diagnosed with these cancers already have heartbreakingly poor survival rates but treatment can add precious months or years to their life expectancies.

“We want to emphasise the message that the NHS is open and there for people with concerning new symptoms not linked to Covid-19.”

Lynda Thomas, Chief Executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, described the findings as “extremely worrying”, adding: “This research shows the possible extent of the direct and collateral damage caused by coronavirus on the health of our nation and to the lives of people living with conditions like cancer. It’s extremely worrying that we are likely to see an increase in deaths of people newly diagnosed with cancer. Macmillan cannot urge people strongly enough to contact their GP if they are concerned about the signs of the disease, so there is no delay to their diagnosis and treatment.

“That’s why we are calling on all governments to stop cancer becoming the forgotten ‘C’ and urgently ensure cancer services are getting everything they need to recover and catch up as quickly as possible from the disruption of the pandemic. This means having the right staff, protective equipment and testing to deliver safe care”.

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