Britain on edge of cancer avalanche which could cripple NHS

Kelly Smith: Cancer patient reveals toll of COVID-19 on treatment

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A dossier of complaints logged about the care of cancer patients reveals how stretched cancer treatment has become during the pandemic and its restrictions. The cancer complaints casebook, drawn from Freedom of Information Act requests to NHS hospitals in England, found in just the first seven months of this year there were 392 official complaints logged about the care of cancer patients.

And the true tally is expected to be even higher as more than one third of Trusts either failed to respond to the survey or said they were unable to provide data.

The report shows dozens of cancer patients have been denied potentially life-saving treatment during the pandemic.

Hospitals have been besieged by complaints from anxious patients and their relatives that vital treatment and tests have been forgotten.

Relatives have complained about the mental anguish they and their loved ones have had to endure as a result of cancer treatment being halted as so much NHS capacity was taken up by Covid patients.

One family complained their relative died in hospital and not only had they not been able to visit them because of Covid restrictions but they had not been told they had cancer.

Other complaints included in the freedom of information reports included a cancer patient worried about the recurrence of a lump being told the earliest appointment they could have was in ten weeks’ time.

Another case saw a patient sent into hospital for a crucial operation only for it to be cancelled on the day and rescheduled for a month after they had originally been due for surgery.

Another patient at the same Trust was said to have endured months of pain and discomfort because doctors allegedly failed to read his scans properly, which showed the true extent of the progression of their cancer.

The dossier did not reveal the final outcome of the cases.

A report by the National Audit Office found up to 740,000 potential cancer cases that should have been urgently referred by GPs have been “missed” since the first lockdown because people have either been reluctant to go to their doctor or could not get an appointment.

Karol Sikora, a consultant oncologist and professor of medicine at Buckingham Medical School, said: “We have huge problems in the UK with our capacity to diagnose cancer. It’s really difficult for GPs to identify cancer patients without getting some sort of imaging – CT or MRI scans. And the waiting time for these has grown dramatically.

“In Europe most patients with cancer start their treatment within two weeks of referral even during the waves of Covid. 

Here many patients are left in limbo for months joining multiple waiting lists for scans and biopsies. We drastically need to fast track our diagnostic pathways to get cancer treatment started earlier’.

Richard Sullivan, Professor of Cancer and Global Health at King’s College London, said: “Cancer healthcare professionals have been working flat out during the pandemic but have been hampered at every turn by a ‘covid-only’ mentality to healthcare.”

He added: “The problem is that cancer is not like a hip that needs replacing. Waiting for the latter is not life threatening but delay in presentation, delays in diagnosis and delays in treatment all, independently are. You can never ‘catch up’ with cancer because whilst you are waiting it progresses.”

Professor Pat Price, a leading cancer specialist and co-founder of the Catch Up With Cancer campaign said cancer services are still being disrupted even as we move into the third year of pandemic restrictions: “We’re one minute to midnight in terms of this Covid induced cancer crisis becoming an avalanche from which we can’t recover. 

“It was already urgent and since the scare over Omicron people are again cancelling vital cancer checks, cancer staff are being redeployed again.

“Cancer patients feel as if they have been thrown under the bus. There are so many in the backlog and so many cancer patients are seeing immense suffering. It’s as though it doesn’t matter that we will have unnecessary cancer deaths. I fear we may never get back on track.”

She added: “The Government response is ringing hollow.  It pains me to say it, but there has never been a more worrying time to be diagnosed with cancer.”

Craig Russell, whose 31 year old daughter Kelly Smith died of bowel cancer in June 2020 after her cancer treatment was stopped due to lockdown restrictions said: “Independent research has already shown it will take 12 years to clear the cancer backlog if cancer services return to pre-pandemic levels. This will cost thousands of lives. A plan is needed today, not tomorrow if these patients are to be given a chance of life.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “Treating more than half a million patients in hospital for Covid while delivering a nationwide vaccination programme has inevitably had some impact on NHS services, but cancer has been a priority for the NHS throughout the pandemic and – thanks to the exceptionally hard work of our staff – more than 460,000 people have started treatment for the disease since March 2020 with 95 per cent beginning their treatment within a month.”

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