CORONAVIRUS could lead to 35,000 extra cancer deaths in a year, experts have warned.
The worst case scenario could see 6,500 lung cancer patients, 5,500 bowel cancer patients and 3,200 breast cancer patients lose their lives, as a result of the knock-on effect of Covid-19.
Sun columnist and stage 4 cancer patient, Deborah James has spent weeks investigating the issue for tonight’s episode of BBC Panorama, Britain’s Cancer Crisis.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, cancer treatment and screening stopped.
More than 44,000 lives have been lost to Covid-19, but experts warn the true cost of the lockdown could see many more lives lost to diseases like cancer.
Best case scenario, 18,000 excess cancer deaths will be recorded, but in the worst case scenario that figure could reach 35,000, Professor Mark Lawler, at Queen’s University told The Sun.
He said: “We felt that, worst case scenario there would be 35,000 excess cancer deaths in the UK in the next year.
“Obviously scientists like to be right in terms of their analysis, but I hope I’m wrong in relation to that.”
Under the worst case scenario, Prof Lawler’s estimates suggests 2,200 lives could be lost to prostate cancer and bladder cancer – making them the fourth and fifth worst affected cancers, after lung, bowel and breast.
Deborah told The Sun: “We stayed at home, protected the NHS and saved lives. We flattened the Covid curve, but it’s terrifying to see how cancer could is likely to be the collateral damage.
“I have seen too many friends have their treatment stopped, operations cancelled and I have lost friends.
“One of my best cancer pals, Kelly died a few weeks ago after her chemo was stopped due to Covid-19. She was 31, and mum to Finn.
“Kelly had incurable cancer, we knew that, but we will never know how much longer she could have had if Covid hadn’t struck. That’s what I can’t get my head around.”
Deborah has been lucky enough to continue her treatment through lockdown, after blood tests showed her tumour markers were raised.
Her mini cancer scare meant her doctors at The Royal Marsden got her straight back in for treatment.
But it’s not just treatment that has been affected. Urgent referrals for cancer have plummeted and screening has stopped – meaning around two million people have missed breast, bowel and cervical cancer screening.
Peter Johnson, national clinical director for cancer at NHS England said it is difficult to judge whether cancer patients who have died, have lost their lives as a result of the pandemic.
He told The Sun’s Deborah: “I honestly don’t know, it’s impossible to say.
“We’re working as fast as we can to put the services back together again, to restore the capacity and indeed to build more, so that we can deal with the people that have not been diagnosed during the time when the services have been running below 100 per cent.
“I’m hoping that we will get back to where we need to be by the end of the year.”
Professor Pat Price, clinical oncologist and a champion for radiotherapy, told Panorama she is unhappy with the guidelines issued to practitioners at the start of lockdown.
She said: “The guidelines for radiotherapy and Covid-19 advised people to delay and avoid radiotherapy in some circumstances.
“I think the guidelines were suggesting that we should be not giving [radiotherapy]all the time, at that time, which was in retrospect, not the best advice. I think it was a very high risk strategy.”
Professor Price said in some hospitals, there were radiotherapy machines “lying idle which could have saved lives.”
She said: “It has been safe to give radiotherapy during Covid-19, we know that now… the machines are here, we haven’t been allowed to switch them on properly. We were told not to do this.
“We are looking at a huge number of unavoidable deaths and we need to address it because there are patients we can cure and we want to get on with it, but we haven’t been allowed to do it.
“And this is all too little, too late. We’ve got to get on with it, we need to save lives.”
Dr Gary Marlowe, an NHS GP said he’s noticed urgent referrals to cancer consultants plummet during the peak of lockdown, with official stats showing they fell 60% in April, compared with April last year.
He said: “I think the main reason this is happening is because the public have responded fantastically well to the message ‘don’t over stress the NHS’ and many people are thinking, ‘oh, I better not bother then.’
“The second thing, there is a significant cohort of people who are very worried about coming anywhere near the NHS, because coming near the NHS means ‘I’m going to get Covid, and therefore I’m going to get very, very ill.’”
The most recent HDR UK research shared with Panorama looked at the rates of urgent cancer referrals up to the end of May and shows that the numbers are not back to pre-emergency levels – they are still down by 44.5 per cent.
Peter Johnson said: “What we were concerned to do when the virus was increasing very rapidly in the population, was to make sure that we could get the right balance between the risk of catching the virus, and the risk of having people’s cancer get worse.
“And in particular, the risks and benefits of things like chemotherapy where, if the chemotherapy isn’t absolutely crucial but it might be dangerous in terms of increasing your risk of coronavirus […] this wasn’t a kind of attempt to police who should have treatment and who shouldn’t, it was more an attempt to try and help people think very clearly.”
Watch Panorama: Britain’s Cancer Crisis on BBC One on tonight at 7.30pm.