Thousands of Londoners miss urgent cancer checks as health campaigners warn of ‘the forgotten C’ amid coronavirus pandemic

Thousands of Londoners were today revealed to be missing urgent checks for cancer as the full impact of coronavirus emerged.

The number seeking a two-week hospital referral from their GP fell by almost 18,000 in May — 53 per cent lower than the same month last year, and worse than the rest of the country.

The number of Londoners starting life-saving or life-extending treatment for cancer also fell by about 1,000 — 35 per cent lower than last year. Health campaigners said the figures were “extremely worrying” and raised concerns that cancer had become “the forgotten C” in the pandemic and lockdown.

The Evening Standard, in conjunction with the Macmillan Cancer Support and Breast Cancer Now charities, analysed the number of cases being referred to the capital’s NHS hospitals and to some independent providers in May, in comparison with May 2019. We found for NHS trusts:

  • A 47 per cent fall in breast cancer referrals, from 6,519 to 3,472.
  • A 63 per cent fall in urological cancers such as prostate cancer, from 2,882 to 1,066. 
  • A 68 per cent fall in referrals for lower gastro-intestinal cancers, such as bowel cancer, from 6,221 to 1,949.
  • A 50 per cent fall in skin cancer, from 6,453 to 3,220.
  • A 41 per cent fall in gynaecological cancers, such as ovarian cancer, from 2,962 to 1,736 referrals.

Sara Bainbridge, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “These figures are a sobering demonstration of the serious impact coronavirus has had on cancer care in London. For three months now, we have called for an urgent recovery plan for NHS cancer services, to ensure that cancer does not become the forgotten ‘C’ in this pandemic.

“It is absolutely critical that the Government commits to addressing the backlog in cancer treatment, including the staffing and resources needed, to deliver the care that many are anxiously waiting for.”

Baroness Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said: “It’s extremely worrying that the peak of the pandemic has led to such a steep drop in the number of women in London being referred to see a breast cancer specialist with potential symptoms. These latest figures remain much lower than we would normally expect to see and it’s clear there’s still a long way to go to ensure breast cancer services in London fully recover to pre-pandemic levels.

“While most breast changes won’t be cancer, the sooner breast cancer is diagnosed, the more likely treatment is to be successful. We are really concerned that the major drop in people being referred could have a devastating impact on the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in the longer-term.”

The figures, drawn from data published yesterday by NHS England, show that while more people were referred to a specialist in May than in April, when coronavirus was at its peak, fewer were able to start treatment.

Across England, monthly referrals for all suspected cancers were down 47 per cent from 200,599 to 106,535. Many non-urgent operations and diagnostic tests were cancelled to enable hospital staff to be redeployed to the Covid-19 frontline. In addition, diagnostic tests were reduced due to many staff falling ill with the virus or having to shield. Hospitals fear it could take many months to tackle the backlog.

Macmillan said many patients had been afraid to report symptoms for “fear of being a burden on the NHS or catching coronavirus”. It said cancer services were likely to come under more pressure as thousands of “invisible patients” come forward to be diagnosed and begin their treatment.

One patient, Jacqueline Curzon, a musician and mother of seven from Edgware, said it was “devastating to be left in no man’s land” and forced to pause treatment for stage four pancreatic cancer due to the pandemic.

She said: “The hateful, venomous, pancreatic cancer cells had marched off during my ‘treatment holiday,’ and taken occupation up north [in the lungs]. This discovery coincided with the outbreak of coronavirus which meant that my treatment was further delayed. I therefore had a break of four months before chemo was restarted in May, which was a delay I felt I could ill afford.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “Throughout the covid pandemic, hospitals have successfully and quickly cared for patients urgently referred by their GP, with over 94 per cent of such urgent cancer referrals being investigated within 14 days, and over 65,000 people starting treatment for cancer throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“Urgent referrals are now increasing again as people come forward for a cancer check, and anyone who is concerned about a possible symptom should contact their GP and come forward for a check-up.”


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