Fears 'significant' number of cancers undiagnosed during Covid

Nick Hulme, chief executive of the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust

Nick Hulme, chief executive of the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Ipswich and Colchester hospitals, said there are a "significant" number of cancers which have gone undiagnosed. - Credit: PA/Archant

A "significant" number of cancers are feared to have gone undiagnosed during Covid in Suffolk and north Essex, with the pandemic "casting a long shadow over cancer care".

Over the past year screening appointments have been delayed and those who have attended will have had to wait longer for follow-up appointments, meaning cancers are being diagnosed at a later stage.

Nick Hulme, chief executive of the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT), which runs Ipswich and Colchester hospitals, told its board of governors there are concerns about the number of missed cancer screenings.

He said: "We estimate a significant number of cancers have gone undiagnosed because of so many services closing down such as screening or diagnostics, and because of people being afraid to come forward with symptoms."

Thousands of women across Suffolk and north Essex were not invited to final routine breast cancer sc

Thousands of women across Suffolk and north Essex were not invited to final routine breast cancer screenings Picture: RUI VIEIRA/PA WIRE - Credit: PA

Sara Bainbridge, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the pandemic has "cast a long shadow over cancer care".

She said: "Fewer people came forward to get symptoms checked out and so there’s been a big drop in people starting treatment for cancer. This is a real cause for concern so we’d urge people in East Anglia to get in touch with their GP if they notice unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite, lumps or bleeding, coughs or new, unexplained pain anywhere in your body which doesn’t go away after three weeks.

“NHS staff have been working incredibly hard in unprecedented circumstances – but there has been disruption to cancer tests and treatment across the whole country. The best way to get back on track is for the Government to back the NHS with a long-term, fully funded plan for its workforce, ensuring there are more dedicated staff able to provide the best care for cancer patients now and in the future.”

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Last June, Macmillan Cancer Support surveyed cancer patients in the East of England — with one in nine saying they feared disruption caused by coronavirus could reduce their likelihood of treatment being successful or, at worst, risk shortening their lives.

The same survey taken in late December shows that figure rose to one in five people.

'I am lucky to tell the tale'

Bowel cancer survivor Gareth Grayston said although coronavirus has been the number one priority, and understandably so, "routine checks are just as vital".

"With any cancer the quicker it's found the less likely it will develop to a higher stage," said Mr Grayston, who is now cancer free.

"I understand that people might not want to venture out with Covid, but hospitals are doing everything they can to keep people safe. I would 100% urge people not to ignore symptoms and to go and get tested."

Ipswich bowel cancer survivor Gareth Grayston said quick diagnosis is vital for survival Picture: SA

Bowel cancer survivor Gareth Grayston said the figures are startling. - Credit: Archant

Mr Grayston, from Ipswich, was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, almost nine months after he first became unwell. 

He claims his GPs suggested taking more vitamins and diagnosed him with stress, prompting a delay in treatment.

It wasn't until he went to A&E that they were able to diagnose him, and he said he is "lucky to tell the tale".

People urged to 'get checked as soon as possible'

Doug Skinner, who recently lost his wife Clare to cervical cancer, said getting checked is the "difference between living and not being here".

When Clare was diagnosed, she was told she had stage 2 cervical cancer, but Doug said things may have been different had it been caught earlier. 

"In a lot of cases you can remove the cancerous cells and be done with it," said Doug, who lives in Lawshall with their four children.

Clare Skinner and husband Doug at their Lawshall home in Suffolk

Doug Skinner is urging people to get tested and screened after the death of his wife Clare, from cervical cancer. - Credit: Archant

"The risk of getting Covid at the hospital is not a reason to not go and get checked if you have symptoms. In most situations, the earlier you get diagnosed the more chance you have to be treated and to be cured, or have an extended life. 

"I know in some cases people are still not able to start their treatment because of Covid and the delays, so that option has been taken away from them.

"People need to get checked as soon as possible."

If you are worried about delays to treatment or diagnosis call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00, which is open seven days a week, 8am-8pm. Those who are experiencing cancer symptoms should visit their GP as a matter of urgency.