Three million miss cancer checks: Charity chiefs warn of devastating impact on survival rates as referrals and screenings are hit by coronavirus delays
- Cancer Research UK found that millions have missed vital screenings
- Lung cancer has been the worst hit with referrals down 50 per cent
- The charity has warned of ‘lengthening queues’ for diagnosis and treatment
Three million patients have missed out on cancer screenings as a result of the coronavirus crisis, experts have warned.
Charities say they are ‘really worried’ about the impact on survival rates as figures published yesterday revealed the full toll of the pandemic.
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) found that millions have missed vital screenings while more than 350,000 people haven’t been urgently referred for a cancer check who should have been.
Around 31,000 fewer patients started treatment between April and July compared to last year – a reduction of 26 per cent.
Lung cancer has been the worst hit, with referrals down 50 per cent because patients believe their cough and chest pains are symptoms of coronavirus.
The charity has warned of ‘lengthening queues’ for diagnosis and treatment after people took the Government’s message to stay at home and protect the NHS ‘literally’, CRUK said.
350,000 people haven’t been urgently referred for a cancer check who should have been
The biggest monthly fall in the number of urgent suspected cancer referrals was in April, with numbers improving since then.
But certain types of cancer are still lagging significantly behind pre-pandemic levels.
Thousands of lung cancer patients may have gone undiagnosed because tell-tale signs of the disease include a persistent cough, breathlessness and a lack of energy.
CRUK said people may be self-isolating if they have these symptoms, rather than visiting a doctor, because they are worried they might have Covid-19.
Overall, 16,000 fewer patients have been urgently referred for lung cancer tests since March – around 50 per cent fewer than would normally have been expected.
Dr Jeanette Dixon, president of the Royal College of Radiologists and a senior lung cancer specialist, said that for two months over the pandemic she had not seen a single curable patient because they had arrived too late for life-saving treatment.
Urgent referrals for suspected urological cancers, including prostate, bladder and kidney cancer, are also amongst the slowest to recover with around 40 per cent fewer urgent tests compared to this time last year.
Crucial tests for suspected breast cancers are now back at around pre-Covid levels, but around 46,000 patients may have slipped through the net.
Dr Neil Smith, Cancer Research UK’s GP for Lancashire and South Cumbria Cancer Alliance, said: ‘The biggest thing I have noticed during coronavirus is that fewer of my patients are actually coming forward to tell me about the signs and symptoms of cancer. They seem to be reluctant to do so.
‘It is very understandable. If somebody has a cough they are a pariah, they have got to stay at home and do a Covid test and isolate for two weeks.
‘As a GP, I’d like to tell patients, if they have got any symptoms or signs that they are worried about, contact your GP. Cancer doesn’t stop for a pandemic.
‘My biggest fear is that in future years I’ll be doing more home visits for palliative care because I, as a GP, am not diagnosing my patients soon enough this year as I have done in the past.’
The figures come as a survey of GPs, conducted last month, found over half reported increased delays to blood test services while two-thirds faced increasing wait times for chest X-rays.
Half also experienced increased waiting times for CT scans.
Michelle Mitchell, CRUK chief executive, said: ‘Without a doubt, Covid-19 has had a really devastating impact on cancer services and patients.
‘Cancer survival here in the UK lags behind comparable countries – Ireland, Norway, Canada, Australia – but the pandemic has made this worse, leaving millions of patients in a backlog waiting for cancer screening, urgent referrals and treatment, and we at Cancer Research UK really fear that this will mean poor survival for cancer patients.’