It has prompted the NHS Clinical Director for Cancer, Professor Peter Johnson to declare that “cancer treatment hasn’t stopped” because of coronavirus and he is urging people with cancer symptoms not to delay in seeking medical help.
The study from University College London (UCL) and DATA-CAN, the Health Data Research Hub for Cancer examined real-time weekly hospital data for urgent cancer referrals and chemotherapy attendances during the epidemic.
It found that the majority of patients with cancer or suspected cancer are not accessing health services.
Analysing figures from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, the Royal Free in London and University College London Hospitals and all five health trusts in Northern Ireland, it found an average reduction in attendance for chemotherapy of 60% and a 76% average drop in cancer referrals for early diagnosis.
Comparing the data from 3.5 million patients, the report’s authors estimated that pre-COVID-19, about 31,354 newly diagnosed cancer patients would die within a year in England.
But as a result of coronavirus, they found there could be at least 6,270 extra deaths in newly diagnosed cancer patients – a rise of a fifth.
When all people currently living with cancer are included, the figure jumps to 17,915 excess deaths.
Professor Johnson, told Sky News: “Cancer treatment hasn’t stopped but we have seen a big reduction in the number of people coming forward and we’d like to reverse that because the system is open for business.”
He highlighted the new “COVID-free cancer hubs”, set up to provide surgery, while independent sector hospitals have signed a deal with the NHS to offer treatment.
Prof Johnson said: “NHS staff have made huge efforts to deal with coronavirus but they are also working hard to ensure that patients can safely access essential services such as cancer checks and urgent surgery.
“From online consultations to the roll-out of cancer treatment hubs, we are doing all we can to make sure patients receive the lifesaving care that they need.”
The UK’s leading cancer hospital, the Royal Marsden is coordinating one of the London cancer hubs.
The operating theatres are open and busy, and clinical teams from up to ten different hospitals are sharing facilities.
This means if intensive care units are full with COVID patients, cancer patients can still be operated on.
One of those to benefit from the cancer hub is John Philpot, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in February.
His surgeon initially told him his operation was being delayed, but he was recently able to access treatment at another hospital.
Mr Philpot says he feels “lucky” the system could treat him. “If you know you’ve got something growing away inside you, you want rid of it and you want to deal with it as fast as possible,” he said.
Managing vulnerable cancer patients in the middle of a pandemic isn’t easy, but there are concerns that if people don’t seek the care they need, there will be bigger problems in the future.
Dr Nick van As, Medical Director at the Marsden said: “One of the worries we have is people sitting at home and they’re ignoring symptoms which otherwise they may have attended to. We know if we catch cancer early in most cases we have much better outcomes.”
The hospital has seen an increase in patients cancelling appointments and the breast clinic has reported a drop in referrals, even though its clinical services are still running.
If the trend continues it could mean thousands more early deaths from cancer, that could otherwise have been avoided.