Delayed cancer screenings could lead to 35,000 avoidable deaths within a year, a hard-hitting report by the Health and Social Care Committee has revealed.
‘Delivering core NHS and care services during the pandemic’ found that 2.4m people are now waiting for screening, tests and treatments for cancer services.
While urgent referrals for diagnostic tests for suspected cancer have dropped by 75% in England, despite national guidelines stating that urgent and essential cancer treatments must continue.
There was also a 76% decrease in urgent referrals from GPs for people with suspected cancers, and a 60% decrease in chemotherapy appointments for cancer patients compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. The number of cancer surgeries taking place had also fallen to around 60% of expected levels.
The report found that up to two million routine breast, bowel and cervical cancer screenings may have been missed throughout the pandemic, which experts say could lead to 35,000 avoidable deaths within a year if delays continue.
Daloni Carlisle, an NHS patient in need of cancer treatment, told the committee: ‘I fell into a hole where I was absolutely in limbo.
‘I did not know, and I had no communication about, when the chemotherapy might start.
‘For most of the lockdown I have been sitting here at home knowing that all the cancers are growing and knowing that the tumours in my lung, my liver and my spine are all busily growing, and there has been absolutely no word at all from the hospital about when some treatment might start.
‘I am a single mum with teenagers at home. My absolute priority is to stay alive. I cannot tell you how difficult that limbo period has been.’
Responding to the report, Steven McIntosh, director of policy, campaigns and influencing at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the disruptions to normal care have created a ‘cancer timebomb’ of untreated patients.
‘This report sends out a stark warning about the impact of the pandemic on cancer services.
‘Disrupted tests and treatment are having a traumatic impact on cancer patients and MPs have warned about the harm and avoidable deaths which could result.
‘We cannot let cancer become the ‘Forgotten C’ in this pandemic. NHS recovery plans must be crystal clear about the scale of the backlog of patients waiting for tests and treatment, and of people whose cancer has gone undiagnosed in the last six months.
‘To avoid this cancer timebomb, we need guarantees that the NHS will have the investment it needs both to catch up, and to prevent cancer services being shut down as the NHS faces a second wave of coronavirus and winter pressures.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the government is committed to supporting NHS capacity to protect against the risk of a further surge in covid-19 cases and the increased pressures on the system during winter:
‘The decisive and extensive action we have taken, guided by the scientific advice, has meant that the NHS was not overwhelmed even at the virus’ peak, so that everyone was always able to get the best possible care.
‘Diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer has remained a priority throughout the pandemic and to help the NHS prepare for winter we have provided an extra £3 billion in funding.’
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