Almost 18,000 more people could die from cancer due to Covid-19 impact

Posted on: 29th April 2020

Almost 18,000 more people could die from cancer over the next year in England due to the impact of Covid-19, research suggests.

Delays in diagnosing new cancers and getting treatment for those who already have the disease could significantly impact survival, according to a study from University College London (UCL) and DATA-CAN, the Health Data Research Hub for Cancer.

“Highly concerning”

Pamela Healy OBE, Chief Executive of the British Liver Trust said: "Liver cancer is one of the least survivable cancers in the UK and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of patients were being diagnosed far too late to receive effective treatment.

“It is highly concerning that cancer patients are potentially missing out on life-saving screening and treatment. Diagnosis and timely treatment is the key to improving cancer survival for all patients, and it is vital that the government take urgent action to address this situation.

“I would urge people who are living with liver cancer to seek advice from their consultant if they are concerned about delays to their current treatment plan. They can also call the British Liver Trust Helpline for general support and advice. ”

Anna Jewell, chairwoman of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce, which includes the British Liver Trust, said: “People diagnosed with these cancers already have heartbreakingly poor survival rates but treatment can add precious months or years to their life expectancies.

“We want to emphasise the message that the NHS is open and there for people with concerning new symptoms not linked to Covid-19.”

Reduction in attendance

Experts looked at real-time weekly hospital data for urgent cancer referrals and chemotherapy attendances during the coronavirus epidemic and found that the majority of patients with cancer or suspected cancer are not accessing health services.

When looking specifically at England and Northern Ireland, they found an average reduction in attendance for chemotherapy of 60% and a 76% average drop in cancer referrals for early diagnosis.

This was across three trusts in England – Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, the Royal Free in London and University College London Hospitals – and all five health trusts in Northern Ireland.

When looking specifically at England and analysing data from more than 3.5 million patients, experts 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.

The research found that almost eight out of 10 of the extra deaths occurring among cancer patients were in people also suffering from conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Get checked if you have symptoms

England’s top cancer doctor has urged people to get checked if they are worried about any symptoms.

A poll found one in 10 people would not contact their GP even if they had a lump or a new mole which did not go away after a week, while a third are worried about seeking help during the epidemic.

Professor Peter Johnson, the NHS clinical director for cancer, said failure to get help could have serious consequences for patients and put a greater burden on the NHS.

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 wishes of patients and their families will always come first, and we have to make sure that people feel safe coming to hospitals, but my message is clear: people should seek help as they always would.

“We know that finding cancer early gives us the best chance to cure it, and ignoring potential problems can have serious consequences now or in the future.”