Katie Willy explores the devastating impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients and how local support groups are fighting to adapt.
Concerns for cancer patients over the backlash from coronavirus are mounting, with Cancer Research recently estimating that 2.4 million people have been affected by delays in treatment, screenings and tests.
It is clear that the government are aware of the huge potential risks to public health, and the increased need to develop stronger diagnostic tools to cope with the backlog.
Last week, science minister Amanda Solloway announced £16m of investment for 6 advanced health projects, most of which are focusing on the use of innovative technologies used in cancer diagnosis.
While this is a productive step forward, there is an immediate need for support for those already suffering the effects of cancer and aggressive treatment.
According to a UCL study with DATA-CAN: The Health Data Research Hub for Cancer in the UK, the pandemic could see an increase of at least 6,270 additional deaths, in newly diagnosed cancer patients alone.
This number could rise to an estimated 17,915 additional deaths if statistics include those already living with cancer.
Support for cancer patients is necessary far beyond physical treatment. For many sufferers, the opportunity to meet others dealing with the same challenges provides a crucial coping mechanism.
Macmillan has been instrumental in establishing and providing financial assistance to Self Help and Support Groups (SHSGs) across the UK.
It is estimated that 1 in 2 of us will experience 1 of over 200 types of cancer during our lifetimes. SHSG’s are therefore organised by a plethora of categories: cancer type, location, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, families and carers.
The pandemic has meant that charities like Macmillan have had to adapt, and despite the challenges, have succeeded in implementing new initiatives.
While face-to-face volunteering has had to be suspended, a new ‘Telephone Buddies’ system offers a weekly phone call with a volunteer, who can specifically understand, listen and direct to other services. A free platform called ‘Safefit’ has also been launched, to connect users with a cancer exercise specialist.
One charity who have worked to ensure that in-person services are still offered is Maggie’s. Much of their localised work is based in specifically designed centres, close to hospitals, creating a welcoming environment in an aesthetic space.
Normally these would offer regular meetings, led by a psychologist, where sufferers can share their experiences and build a comforting network of support.
Laura Lee, CEO of Maggie’s, describes some of the challenges presented by the pandemic: ‘The last few months have been incredibly traumatic for people living with cancer, and delays and uncertainty over treatment has contributed to a huge rise in fear, stress and anxiety.
‘We have adapted our support by seeing and speaking to people over the phone, email and on our online community. Our centres are also open for people visiting hospitals or by appointment, but at the moment we are only offering our core programme of psychological support face-to-face.
‘Our group exercise classes, mediation and even some singing groups have all been coming together via video.’
‘We have taken over 34,000 requests for support over the lockdown period but now the knock-on effects, and the emotional and psychological needs of those living with cancer, looks set to last for a long time. We are anticipating a spike in the coming months in people coming to our centres.’
There is a clear concern across the board that the impact of COVID on cancer patients will be catastrophic.
‘It is therefore vital that charities, government and the NHS are in a position to robustly offer support and services. But with increased demand comes a rise in costs, at a time when charities are restricted in the ways they can generate donations.
‘All of our services have always been and will continue to be free, however like many charities we are feeling the financial impact of coronavirus.
‘Our funding has been affected, especially as people haven’t been able to fundraise as they normally would. We are holding various different fundraising initiatives to enable us to continue to offer support to people with cancer at a time when it is needed, now more than ever.’
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