A BBC Panorama programme aired yesterday evening (Monday, 6 July) highlighted the devastating impact of delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment during the coronavirus pandemic.
With studies showing that tens of thousands of people may die from cancer as a result of the pandemic, we look at how services have been affected in Yorkshire and the ways Yorkshire Cancer Research is trying to help.
Why have tests and treatments been cancelled during the pandemic?
To allow the NHS to focus on caring for those with Covid-19, doctors have - in some cases – been required to prioritise cancer treatment for those most in need.
Some treatment plans have also been suspended to try to protect those with cancer. This is because patients undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery can be more at risk of becoming seriously unwell if they contract the virus. If the risk of beginning or continuing cancer treatment is considered to outweigh the benefits, then treatment has been postponed.
Screening programmes – which are designed to find cancer at an early stage when it is easier to treat - have also been paused to minimise social contact and allow healthcare professionals to focus on the pandemic. Some services have continued but mainly for people considered to be at high risk, for example those that have previously missed appointments or pre-cancerous cells have been found so they need more frequent screening.
People taking part in clinical trials have also been affected, with researchers turning their attention to developing tests, treatments, and vaccines to tackle Covid-19.
What has the impact been on people being diagnosed with cancer?
During the pandemic, GP surgeries saw a significant and worrying decline in the number of people getting in touch with possible cancer symptoms.
Dr Amir Khan, Bradford GP and star of Channel 5’s GPs: Behind Closed Doors, told Yorkshire Cancer Research that before the coronavirus pandemic his practice was urgently referring an average of 30-35 patients to hospital with suspected cancer symptoms every week. After lockdown, this number fell to just 3-4 a week.
Diagnosing cancer at the earliest possible stage is vital in saving lives, and we, along with other organisations including the NHS, continue to use media and social channels to reassure people that they should still contact their GP with any concerns.
Data from NHS England released in June shows that the number of people in Yorkshire attending hospital appointments following an urgent referral from their GP declined by 55% in April compared to the previous month.
During April, 7,946 people were seen by a specialist in Yorkshire following referral from their GP. This compares with 17,840 people in March.
The data also shows a 27% decrease in patients receiving their first treatment within 31 days of a treatment plan being agreed (the maximum waiting time standard), and a 27% decrease in patients receiving their first treatment within 62 days of urgent GP referral.
A study carried out by University College London and DATA-CAN: The Health Data Research Hub for Cancer in the UK also found a 45% reduction in chemotherapy attendances and a 70% reduction in urgent referrals at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.
Using their calculations, we have estimated that an additional 627 people may die from cancer in Yorkshire as a result of Covid-19.
Are cancer services beginning to return to normal?
Following a decline in hospital admissions for Covid-19, some cancer services are now returning to normal.
Healthcare professionals have been able to return their attention to cancer care and treatment plans are beginning to be resumed.
Measures are being taken to protect cancer patients from Covid-19, including the introduction of coronavirus testing for NHS staff and the establishment of ‘cancer hubs’ where patients can safely receive the care they need with a greatly reduced risk of contracting the virus.
In some areas, invitations to take part in screening are beginning to be sent out, and we recommend anyone invited to take part do so.
Some cancer clinical trials that had been put on hold are now restarting, including the Leeds Lung Health Check, funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research. This has resumed normal service and is once again screening new patients for early signs of lung cancer.
Healthcare teams are taking measures to minimise risks for people taking part in research from Covid-19, such as fewer face-to-face clinics or drive-through blood tests.
How is Yorkshire Cancer Research helping?
Yorkshire Cancer Research has teamed up with NHS Trusts across the region to understand the impact of Covid-19 on the care of cancer patients needing life-saving surgery.
The charity is supporting a global study called CovidSurg-Cancer led by Mr Aneel Bhangu, a National Institute for Health Research Clinician Scientist in Global Surgery based at the University of Birmingham.
Researchers across the world are collecting data to help answer questions about how hospitals are managing surgery during the pandemic and monitor the effect on patients. John Edwards, Consultant Thoracic Surgeon at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, is leading Yorkshire’s contribution to the research.
Funding from Yorkshire Cancer Research is helping to coordinate the involvement of hospitals in the region and analyse the data collected.
Saving lives in Yorkshire
We were deeply saddened by the death of Kelly Smith, from Macclesfield, Cheshire, whose story featured on the BBC’s Panorama programme. We know many people in Yorkshire will have similar experiences.
We want the NHS to get diagnostic and treatment services fully up speed as soon as possible in a way that protects patients from the risk of coronavirus.
We are determined to do all we can to help tackle the backlog in diagnosis and treatment that is currently threatening the lives of hundreds of people in our region.
And we urge anyone with possible cancer symptoms to contact their GP surgery as soon as possible. Doctors can carry out appointments over phone or video call. If they feel they need to see you, appointments can take place safely.
In these uncertain times, the support of people in Yorkshire means more than ever.
Sign up to receive our latest news and updates
Yorkshire Cancer Research has a direct impact on the lives of people living in Yorkshire. But we need more people to join us, to help make sure that people in the region have the best possible support and treatment.