The backlog of cancer cases due to Covid-19 will require an emergency national response similar to the response to Covid-19 itself to prevent a full-blown health crisis in the coming months, according to one of the UK’s top cancer experts and former head of the WHO’s cancer programme.
Professor Karol Sikora, chief medical officer at Rutherford Health, said: “Our worst fears about a significant build-up of cancer cases due to Covid-19 have now become a reality. An upward stage migration of cancer with poorer outcomes was somewhat inevitable but the figures from Cancer Research UK are worse than I anticipated.”
It comes as Cancer Research UK revealed yesterday that there are now 2.4 million people in the UK waiting for cancer screening, treatment or tests as a direct consequence of the disruption to NHS services over the past ten weeks alone.
Professor Sikora added: “It remains a real possibility that the coronavirus will claim more lives through cancer than Covid-19 itself. This would be an unimaginable disaster. Almost 300,000 people with suspected cancer symptoms have not been referred for testing and over 2 million people missed out on screening. The progression of cancers during these delays will impact quality of life and long-term patient survival. Even modest delays can impact on patient survival.
“The only way to prevent this is through a national effort which includes coordination from the government and collaboration from the public and independent sectors. Covid-19 showed that we are capable of rising to the challenge. The NHS response to the pandemic has been fantastic and ensured that we remained within capacity for ventilators and ICUs throughout the peak of the crisis. This was a stark contrast to other countries such as Italy which suffered from acute shortages.
“The scale of the cancer backlog means that it requires a similar response. We must rise to the challenge once more to ramp up screening, diagnosis and treatment. It is crucial that we do not allow this backlog to feed a new cycle of delays and waiting times in cancer care that lasts for many months if not years. This would be hugely damaging for patient outcomes and will place considerable strain on cancer services for a long time.
“Cancer services can be stretched at the best of times. To overcome the current crisis we need to act quickly and collaboratively. We should utilise all capacity in the independent sector for screening, diagnosis and treatment. This should include advanced cancer treatments such as high energy proton beam therapy. Until very recently, many UK cancer patients were sent abroad for advanced treatments such as proton beam therapy. This is no longer feasible due to the pandemic and it is also unnecessary because we have these services in the independent sector.
“The NHS has already been doing this to a degree. Our network of Rutherford Cancer Centres for example have been treating more NHS cancer patients with conventional treatments such as chemotherapy over the past two months. Such collaborations may need to be scaled up significantly in order to bring the backlog under control.
“We must urgently refocus our attention to cancer and especially the backlog that has already built up. Failure to do so will risk us sleepwalking straight into another health crisis.”