There’s no doubt about it, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed incredible pressure on the NHS. The strain on acute care has highlighted cracks in other parts of the health care system, including cancer care. 

Screening, diagnosis, surgery and treatment have all been affected. In an area of medicine which is especially time-sensitive, this knock-on effect can be devastating. For some, the effect is on their quality of life; for others, it will mean the cancer has spread, and others will have a lower chance of survival. 

Cancer Research UK and others have highlighted this issue and the need to improve patient care. 

Their research found that for every week cancer screening is paused, 7,000 people are not being referred for further tests and 380 cancers are not being diagnosed through screening programmes. 

Other research has tried to estimate the number of extra cancer deaths that could be caused by service disruption during the pandemic.  The numbers of avoidable deaths range from 3,300 to 60,000.

Cancer Research UK’s Chief Clinician, Professor Charles Swanton, put it simply: “Patients shouldn’t need to wait for this to be over before getting the treatment they need.”  He said it is possible to create a safe environment for both staff and cancer patients.

As a clinical negligence team with expertise in dealing with cases involving cancer, we have first-hand experience of how difficult it is to treat at any time, let alone during a pandemic. The earlier a diagnosis is made and appropriate treatment is given, the better the chances of recovery and survival. Thankfully the NHS has made significant advances in its screening and treatment of cancer in recent years which undoubtedly has saved lives, but the concerns highlighted by Cancer Research UK at this particular time, relating to potential delays in diagnosis and treatment, should not be underestimated in respect of the impact on positive outcomes.

We are only too aware that treatment for cancer will depend on its type, where it is in the body and how advanced it is at the time of diagnosis. The main forms of treatment are surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone treatment for some types. Our previous cases show that if these treatments are delayed this can result in the spread of the cancer to other parts of the body, requiring more invasive and complex treatment, which ultimately may reduce the patient’s chance of long-term survival or cure.

For more information

If you have any questions relating to this e-briefing or concerns about cancer care you or a relative have received, please contact Ann Houghton who will be happy to speak to you on an initial free, no-obligation basis.