From The Times Saturday 22nd 2020’
More than 100 MPs have written to Boris Johnson after the coronavirus lockdown caused severe disruption to cancer diagnoses and treatments. They have called on him to deliver an emergency boost to treatment capacity.
One senior oncologist has claimed that in a worst-case scenario the effects of the pandemic could result in 30,000 excess cancer deaths over the next decade.
In the letter, seen by The Times, the MPs write: “We urge you to work with your ministers to ensure that the NHS reacts more quickly to restore cancer services that have been badly disrupted due to the response to Covid.
“We are particularly concerned that the NHS’s plan appears to be limited to getting cancer services back to normal by the end of the year [but] this timescale is far too long. Many cancers can become untreatable in a matter of weeks.”
The signatories include Dan Poulter, a former health minister, Sir Ed Davey, a former energy secretary, and Sir Oliver Heald, a former solicitor-general.
Research predicts that people are more likely to die from cancer now than 15 years ago due to the effects of the pandemic. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that for lung cancer, five-year survival rates stand to drop from 16.2 per cent to 15.4 per cent, breast cancer from 85 per cent to 83.5 per cent, and colorectal cancer from 58.4 per cent to 56.1 per cent.
Separate figures from the Cancer Research UK charity indicate that in the 18 weeks since March 23 about three million people missed out on vital screenings for bowel, breast and cervical cancer. In the same period about 315,000 fewer people than normal received an urgent suspected cancer referral and overall there were 38,000 fewer treatments.
Karol Sikora, a senior oncologist and co-founder of Rutherford Health, a private cancer treatment company, suggested that there could be up to 30,000 excess cancer deaths in the next ten years. He cited a study published last month in the journal Lancet Oncology, looking at the decline during lockdown in urgent cancer referrals by GPs. It calculated a worst-case scenario where an average six-month delay in these referrals would lead to nearly 9,300 excess deaths in the next decade.
He conceded that his estimate was high compared with others. However, according to the study, if every urgent GP referral was delayed by just one month about 1,400 extra deaths would result. “Some estimates say a few thousand cancer patient lives could be lost. I think you can easily multiply that by ten,” Professor Sikora said. “It’s far worse than people appreciate.”
Mark Lawler, a cancer specialist at Queen’s University Belfast tracking the impact of Covid-19 disruptions, predicts between about 7,000 and 18,000 early deaths in the next ten years as a “reasonable scenario”. A worst-case scenario estimated about 35,000.
“I don’t think just returning to pre-Covid levels is sufficient, I think we need to be operating at at least 130 per cent rather than getting back to 100 per cent,” he said.
Cancer Research UK presented the government with a recovery plan in June but has not received any feedback.
The most recent letter to the prime minister, co-ordinated by the charity Action Radiotherapy, argues that smart and cost-effective solutions should be adopted to quickly respond to the crisis. Pat Price, the charity chairwoman, said: “This is the biggest crisis in cancer services in my lifetime. We need a dramatic intervention from the government, or we will lose thousands of lives unnecessarily.”
The all-party parliamentary group for radiotherapy has produced a plan to tackle the cancer backlog, that includes access to vital machinery, creating a national taskforce and increasing the radiotherapy workforce. Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and chairman of the APPG, said: “A catastrophic cancer crisis is unfolding right now. It is not enough to get services back up and running by the end of the year.”
The most recent NHS data from June shows that urgent cancer referrals dropped by a fifth compared with June last year; breast cancer referrals dropped by 43 per cent.
Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of policy and information, said: “The government must ensure that the NHS gets the investment it needs.”
This month Mr Johnson announced that NHS trusts across England would receive £300 million to upgrade A&E facilities as part of £1.5 billion capital building allocation set out in June.
Beth Purvis, 41, had surgery cancelled and has been told she is incurable
Beth Purvis will never know if surgery scheduled for March would have stopped her cancer from reaching her brain (Katie Gibbons writes).
Ms Purvis, 41, of Essex, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in October 2016 but it spread to her lungs. She was due to have surgery to remove a lung nodule when the country locked down. The operation was cancelled and Ms Purvis did not learn until May that the cancer had reached her brain. It is incurable.
“I completely understand why it was cancelled. When I found out it had spread to my brain I was devastated,” she said. “I have two children, Joseph aged ten and Abigail who is 12. We tell them everything, so that was a difficult conversation. There will always be a big ‘what if’ about whether that cancelled surgery could have given me more time.”
John Anderson has watched with frustration as his brother Alan’s condition worsens due to a lack of proper treatment. “He has battled bladder cancer for the past 18 months or so and was well into his treatment,” Mr Anderson, 72, said. His programme fell apart when lockdown started.
Alan went into a hospice in Luton eight weeks ago. “Of course he was very ill but we know he would have had a chance — now he is under palliative care and very, very ill,” his brother said. “He is in excruciating pain as the cancer is now in his spine. The doctors have told him there’s nothing more they can do.
“We think if he’d got the treatment when he should have then it might have extended his life. My view of the NHS is, at this time, not the same as all the ‘clappers’. I am watching my brother in pain.”
Beth Pattison, 27, died in June, leaving behind her five-year-old son Finn, after her cancer was dismissed as coronavirus by a GP. Ms Pattison had already beaten breast cancer twice but when she developed a cough and fever she had concerns. She called her GP in March and was told it was probably Covid-19.
Beth Pattison, 27, died after her cancer was dismissed as Covid-19; she left behind her five-year-old son, Finn
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In May she was taken to A&E by her father but was assessed only for Covid-19, tested negative and was sent home.
A month later she died; her cancer had returned and spread to her ovaries.
Her father, Craig, hopes others will avoid her fate. “They weren’t looking for anything else; they were focused on Covid and pneumonia,” he said. “Beth asked repeatedly whether the cancer could be back and each time they decided not to test her. She’s left behind a five-year-old boy and our lives are going to be devoted to him now.”