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How Covid19 affects cancer diagnosis

The Covid-19 pandemic that has taken hold of the world since early 2020 has created an unprecedented set of challenges to the way we live and work. The delivery of healthcare has been no exception. While health planners, medical specialists and government officials have rightly been focused on reducing the transmission of the virus, it hasn’t been without a wide range of unintended consequences.

A looming cancer crisis

The UK is heading towards a cancer crisis. That was the conclusion of the BBC Panorama programme as they unveiled shocking figures which illustrated the full devastating impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on cancer patients. There is now a growing backlog of work that has been created as a result of the pandemic, meaning that large numbers of people are going undiagnosed and untreated.

Large scale disruption

There has been significant disruption to cancer treatment across the board. Vital treatments, appointments and surgeries have all been cancelled, leaving patients in a worrying state of limbo. Drug trials of potentially life-saving new treatments have been put on hold. Routine screening appointments have been delayed. On top of all this is the psychological impact of the crisis on people who may well need cancer treatment. Worrying signs and symptoms have been ignored for fear of attending a GP surgery or hospital. Others have presumed that the NHS is at full-capacity and they would be a burden.

Early diagnosis saves lives

The earlier cancer is diagnosed, and treatment can begin, the more likely it is to be successful. If bowel cancer can be detected at stage 1 the chance of survival is 90%, if it isn’t detected until stage 4, that drops dramatically to just 10%. Early diagnosis is literally a matter of life and death.

Diagnosis has been impacted

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the government issued guidelines that led to the delay of two million cancer screening appointments. This decision resulted in thousands of cancer cases being missed. The opportunity for early diagnosis was lost with devastating consequences for those concerned.

The Forgotten C

From being known as ‘The Big C’, there is now concern that cancer has become ‘The Forgotten C’. Guidelines that were put in place in an attempt to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed by coronavirus cases has resulted in people who would previously have sought treatment now being reluctant to do so. Fear over contracting the virus has prevented people from visiting A&E, even when worrying symptoms such as bleeding might suggest they have something seriously wrong. 1 in 10 cancers are spotted during visits to A&E, and at the pandemic’s peak were only half of what they were the previous year.

Those that did attend were often faced by worryingly low staffing levels, with resources stretched incredibly thin. Many faced very long waits for life-saving scans. At the height of the pandemic, the number of referrals for cancer treatment decreased by two-thirds.

A tragic case

Sherwin Hall, a 27-year-old delivery driver from Leeds, made 13 visits to hospital and pleaded for a scan before finally receiving one at the end of May 2020. It was then discovered that he had a five-inch tumour in his pelvis and 30 small tumours in his legs. Both his GP and consultants advised him that he couldn’t have a scan as services were slowed down as a result of Covid-19. Tragically, Mr. Hall died in December 2020. His family believes that had he had a scan when he first requested one, he would still be alive. This is just one case out of thousands, of people who now face a precarious future as a result of delays.

How government decisions impacted on cancer patients

In March 2020, the government announced widespread emergency reforms in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These dictated how NHS resources were to be deployed and estimated that there would be an unprecedented demand for ICU facilities. As a result, all current clinical cancer trials were put on hold, and lifesaving treatments such as chemotherapy were halted for thousands of patients across the country.

Despite being advised that it would be a high-risk strategy, the government guidelines stated that radiotherapy should be delayed and even avoided altogether in some circumstances. In effect, some radiotherapy machines that might have saved lives were left unused. Vacant bed and diagnostic equipment across the private health sector were left empty at the height of the pandemic. They are now in greater use, but failure to make use of these resources early on probably cost lives.

Last summer, scientists warned that continued delays to cancer diagnosis and treatment could cost up to 35,000 lives that would otherwise have been saved.

Serious medical negligence

Legal medical negligence specialists are being approached by a growing number of people who have suffered as a consequence of the government’s decisions since the pandemic began. The experienced, sensitive and professional team at Mark Reynolds Solicitors can answer any questions you might have about the delays in your cancer diagnosis and treatment. For a free, no-obligation chat about the concerns you have please contact us on 0800 002 9577. Alternatively, you can use the online form.