Two week referrals which red flag patients with suspected cancer have plummeted by over 60% due to the COVID-19 crisis, leading to delays in cancer diagnoses across Northern Ireland, a leading cancer expert has said.
Professor Mark Lawler said there had been significant numbers of postponements for screening appointments, treatment had been significantly affected with a drop of over 50% in chemotherapy attendances and patient access to clinical trials was down by nearly 80%.
Prof Lawler, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Digital Health Faculty of Medicine, Health and Life Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, was addressing a virtual meeting of Stormont’s All Party Group on Cancer (APGC) on Monday June 1.
“Our data unequivocally show the devastating effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had, both on people at risk of developing cancer and on patients with cancer. We must restore our cancer services as quickly as possible, otherwise we risk cancer being the ‘Forgotten C’ in the battle against COVID-19,” he told MLAs, cancer charity representatives and health professionals.
Prof Lawler, who is also Scientific Director of DATA-CAN, the UK Health Data Research Hub for Cancer, added: “Our research highlights the need to have accurate cancer data in real time to allow us to make the best decisions for the benefit of our patients. Otherwise we are fighting both cancer and COVID-19 with one arm tied behind our back.
Roisin Foster, Chief Executive, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, told attendees: “Charities and the people they serve have been very severely affected by the pandemic.
“The charities that depend on public fundraising have seen their income decimated. Charity shops have closed and fundraising events such as cycles, fun runs, marathons and even coffee mornings have been cancelled.”
She added: “With no income many charities have availed of the furlough scheme. While this is truly beneficial in meeting wages costs, it means that our staff are not available when people need us most.
“Our team members who are in contact with cancer patients are picking up heightened levels of anxiety. A cancer diagnosis brings high levels of stress which is exacerbated by worries about coronavirus.
“We are truly grateful to the NHS and all the other essential workers who have been playing a tremendous role keeping people safe.”
Speakers at the meeting were introduced by APGC chair Paula Bradshaw MLA. The secretariat for the APGC is provided by Cancer Focus NI.