UK (Sky News)

Coronavirus: Cancer patients ‘helpless’ amid fears more will die from delayed treatment than COVID-19

By September 23, 2020 No Comments

As experts warn tens of thousands of cancers are going untreated and undetected due to coronavirus, Sky News speaks to some of the patients who fear they are losing precious time. 

Lesley Stephen, 54, from Edinburgh was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer six years ago and given just months to live.

She made memory boxes for her four children, now aged 11 to 20, but her situation was transformed by taking part in a successful clinical trial.

Lesley Stephen, 54, has advanced stage breast cancer
Image:Lesley Stephen, 54, has advanced stage breast cancer

In recent months, however, the cancer has started to spread to her lungs and liver, and COVID-19 has limited her options.

“I’ve already been told that if I need surgery on my lung that’s likely to be delayed by a couple of months because of resources being diverted to the COVID virus,” she said.

If she has to come off her current clinical trial, recruitment to new trials has stalled.

“There’s constant anxiety at the back of my mind anyway. Will this be my last summer, will this be my last Christmas?

“I know at some point the cancer is going to get me effectively and it would be awful if the virus and the lack of treatments hastened that,” she said.

When the lockdown began, hospital trusts were told to halt non-urgent surgery for three months to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

Professor Pat Price, a clinical oncologist and professor at Imperial College London, told Sky News: “We are most certainly going to lose more patients to cancer than to COVID-19.

Professor Pat Price says a backlog of cancer patients could 'overwhelm the service'
Image:Professor Pat Price says a backlog of cancer patients could ‘overwhelm the service’

“From patients that are not feeling like they can present to their GPs for good reasons, screening appointments cancelled and those that are in treatment having those treatments called or delayed or compromised, this is happening now.

“We have a backlog of patients that will overwhelm the service.”

Analysis by Cancer Research UK this week found referrals of suspected cancer by GPs have plummeted by 75% as patients stay at home.

Combined with screening programmes being cancelled, they estimate 2,700 new cases of cancer are going undetected each week.

:: Listen to the Daily podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker

The chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, has urged people with concerns to go to their GP or A&E departments – where attendance has halved as people fear being a burden or picking up the virus.

But cancer treatment of all kinds is being cancelled, either because the patient would be at too high a risk from COVID, or to free up bed space.

Martin Ducksbury, 64, a salesman from Sheffield, was diagnosed with a small kidney tumour in November after going to his GP with a swollen stomach.

Martin and Jackie Ducksbury fear Martin's cancer could spread
Image:Martin and Jackie Ducksbury fear Martin’s cancer could spread

He was due to have an operation on 25 March, but was told the morning before it had been cancelled – just as the UK lockdown began.

Martin, who has an underlying lung disease, said:”They said it would be a disaster for me, if I caught the virus.

“I’d have to go to high dependency after the operation and that was full of COVID patients.”

He has been told he faces a wait of up to four months. “You just feel helpless,” he said.

His wife Jackie added: “Our fear obviously is it could spread.

“They say it’s slow-growing but they don’t really know how aggressive it is.”

A patient on an NHS hospital ward
Image:GP referrals of suspected cancer cases have plummeted

NHS England says urgent and essential treatment should still be delivered. Mr Stevens said in the coming weeks more services could be delivered in wards or hospitals without COVID patients.

But consultants have privately told Sky News there is a postcode lottery, with some trusts cancelling more cancer treatments than others.

A patient from the North West, who had chemotherapy for throat cancer delayed, said a consultant told her he felt as if he was having to “play God”.

Bradley Jones, a 22-year-old accountancy student from Surrey, was diagnosed with a rare testicular cancer two years ago, and he needs further treatment.

Bradley Jones, 22, is receiving chemotherapy treatment
Image:Bradley Jones, 22, is receiving chemotherapy treatment

After being told he may face delays of several weeks due to the virus, he has started chemotherapy at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

It is a cancer “hub” which has no coronavirus patients. But these do not exist across the country.

Some patients are able to be treated at private hospitals where the NHS has bought up capacity for treatment.

Rachel Kirby-Rider of the charity Clic Sargent said many young patients had seen treatments delayed, and those receiving end of life care “are not able to make the memories they so desperately want with their loved ones”.

Many patients recognise the pressures of tackling the virus, but this doesn’t stop them worrying about whether they can receive the treatment they need.

“If you delay, you risk letting it spread and making it something they can’t actually control,” Mr Jones said. “Cancer doesn’t wait around.”


Leave a Reply