Coronavirus crisis could cause 10,000 extra cancer deaths in England in next five years, experts warn

THOUSANDS of lives could be lost in England to cancer due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, experts claim.

New research revealed that delays in diagnostic services, along with referral scans and a drop-off in people going to their GP if they have symptoms, could result in cancer being spotted too late.

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Writing in The Lancet Oncology, the experts calculated that there could be around 3,500 potentially avoidable deaths from breast, bowel, oesophageal and lung cancer over the next five years in England.

They also claimed that the deaths would mainly be seen in younger and middle-aged people.

This is while a separate study by the Institute of Cancer Research found that the figure would be closer to 10,000 when all other types of cancer were included.

The research comes after a petition was launched earlier this month to stop tens of thousands of coronavirus-linked cancer deaths.

The appeal was launched by the family of stage 4 bowel cancer patient Kelly Smith, who died after her chemo was stopped during lockdown.

Her parents Mandy and Craig Russell are calling on the Government to get services back up and running now to avoid further tragedies.

Sun columnist and mum-of-two Deborah James, 38, was diagnosed with incurable bowel cancer three years ago, bringing light to Kelly's story earlier this month on BBC Panorama's programme Britain's Cancer Crisis.

Kelly was one of her best friends and Deborah has been left terrified at the growing cancer crisis the country faces in the aftermath of Covid.

As part of the programme, experts told Deborah that they estimate there could be 35,000 extra cancer deaths this year, as a result of the crisis.

Experts have now warned that there needs to be a rapid ramping up of NHS diagnostics to prevent avoidable deaths.

Figures from the NHS show that 106,535 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in May 2020, down from 200,599 in May 2019 – a fall of 47 per cent.

This is while 55,500 more people are now waiting to have key cancer tests in England's hospitals compared with the same point last year.

The experts created death estimates based on disruptions to cancer services and people avoiding seeking help due to the coronavirus.

They claimed that on average 20 years of life would be lost for each avoidable death.

Breast cancer deaths could rise between 8-10 per cent, with more than 344 deaths by 2025.

On average, for each avoidable cancer death due to diagnostic delay, 20 years of life will be lost

There could also be a 5 per cent rise in lung cancer deaths, and a 6 per cent rise in deaths from oesophageal cancer over the next five years.

Dr Ajay Aggarwal, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London, who led the research, said: "Our findings estimate a nearly 20 per cent increase in avoidable bowel cancer deaths due to diagnostic delays.

"To prevent this becoming a reality, it is vital that more resources are made urgently available for endoscopy and colonoscopy services which are managing significant backlogs currently, and that patients present promptly to their GP if they have any concerning gastrointestinal symptoms."

Professor Richard Sullivan, from King's College London, who also worked on the study, said: "On average, for each avoidable cancer death due to diagnostic delay, 20 years of life will be lost.


"These estimates paint a sobering picture and reflect the many young people who are affected by cancer in the prime of life during their most productive years."

The separate study from the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) looked at data for 20 common cancers.

At present, anyone with suspected cancer is supposed to be seen by a specialist in hospital within two weeks of referral by their GP.

The modelling from ICR suggested that if all patients eventually sought help and were referred for scans or other tests promptly at the end of lockdown in mid-June, there could be between 181 and 542 excess deaths.

Despite this, delays in accessing scans and biopsies meant that even more lives would be lost.

Researchers estimated that a one month per patient delay in diagnosis via the two-week GP referral pathway would result in 1,412 lives lost, while a six-month delay would result in 9,280 lives lost.

The ICR stated that delays for suspected bladder, kidney and lung cancers would have the biggest impact on the number of lives lost.

Study leader Professor Clare Turnbull said: "It's vital that we do everything we can to ensure cancer patients are not left further behind by the disruptions to care caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"That means ramping up capacity as quickly as possible to allow cancer diagnostic services to clear the backlog."

Professor Paul Workman, chief executive of the ICR, said: "It has become clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on people with cancer – by delaying their diagnosis, disrupting access to surgery and other aspects of care, and pausing vital research into new treatments."

The scientists also found that there would be 228 more breast cancer deaths if everyone diagnosed with the disease experienced a one-month delay due to the pandemic.

This is while a six-month delay for everyone could cause 1,629 extra deaths from breast cancer.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, which helped fund the study, said: "Early diagnosis remains absolutely critical.

"While referrals to see a cancer specialist are starting to recover, we are still some way from this returning to normal."

An NHS spokeswoman said: "Hospitals have successfully and quickly cared for patients urgently referred by their GP, with over 94per cent of cases being investigated within 14 days in May, and the key point remains that anyone with a possible symptom should come forward for a check-up.

"The NHS is taking urgent action to increase the number of tests carried out so that people are seen quickly and more than 65,000 people have started treatment for cancer during the pandemic."


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