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Cancer doctors warn of danger in reopening delay as 4,000 Londoners went undiagnosed

·3-min read

Cancer doctors have warned of the dangers of delaying the final lifting of lockdown after more than 4,000 Londoners went undiagnosed during the first wave of the pandemic.

The first study to examine what happened in some of the NHS’s biggest cancer units found the number of patients coming forward for diagnosis or treatment fell by more than 50 per cent for some types of the disease.

The number of men seen for prostate cancer by the South-East London Cancer Alliance, which covers 1.67m patients, fell by 51 per cent between March and September last year, when compared with the previous year.

The number of women seen for gynaecological cancers was down almost 30 per cent. Breast cancer diagnoses were down almost 30 per cent, and by almost 25 per cent for lung cancer.

The study, which analysed patient records at Guy’s and St Thomas’, King’s College and Lewisham & Greenwich NHS trusts, found there were 987 fewer cancer diagnoses – down more than 18 per cent year on year.

Researchers said this equated to about 4,000 fewer diagnoses across the capital and 40,000 across the country – with many more likely to have resulted from the pandemic’s second and third waves before and after Christmas.

The study also found that one in 25 patients who sought help did so when their cancer had reached a more advanced – and thus potentially more deadly – stage.

Clinical oncologist Dr Ajay Aggarwal, one of the researchers, said ministers deciding whether to proceed with the June 21 date needed to “create an environment where people are able to come forward with their symptoms”.

He told the Standard: “Patients are presenting with more advanced, complex disease, which is either incurable or associated with worse prognosis compared to if they had been diagnosed earlier.

“Irrespective of the decision regarding lifting lockdown, the Government need to prioritise appropriate public health messaging encouraging the public to come forward with concerning symptoms and that it is safe to do so.”

The study, in the ecancer journal, found that, for some months, prostate cancer diagnoses fell from 131 to 25, while bowel cancer diagnoses fell from 80 to 21.

It said this was a “salient warning” that lockdown restrictions needed to take account of the impact of diseases other than covid to prevent an increase in “avoidable deaths”.

During the first wave, the national screening programmes for breast, colorectal and cervical cancer were stopped, and there was a “significant” reduction in endoscopy investigations.

The South-East London Cancer Alliance normally makes almost 8,000 cancer diagnoses a year.

Separate research from Macmillan Cancer Support today estimated that 80,000 fewer Londoners than expected had seen a cancer specialist since the start of the pandemic, based on the NHS’s latest waiting lists.

This is 17 per cent lower than normal. There has also been a 12 per cent drop in the number starting cancer treatment in the capital between March last year and April – a total of 5,000 patients.

Emma Tingley, head of partnerships at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “These figures highlight the scale of the challenge still facing the NHS. We must not forget that they represent real people with suspected cancer who’ve faced agonising changes and unacceptably long waits for diagnosis and treatment throughout the pandemic.

“We also know that there are still thousands of people ‘missing’ a cancer diagnosis and so we continue to urge people to contact their GP if they notice something that could be a cancer symptom.”

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