MLAs told of 1,130 ‘missing’ cancer patients

Stormont building APGC


11 November 2020 

Northern Ireland MLAs learned of 1,130 ‘missing’ local cancer patients during a virtual All Party Group on Cancer (APGC) meeting.

A study by NI Cancer Registry Director, Professor Anna Gavin, indicated that between March and August this year there had been 23% fewer cancer diagnoses recorded compared to the same period last year.

Prof Gavin said, “Annually approximately 10,000 persons in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with cancer, excluding the common non-melanoma skin cancer. In the first six months of the pandemic, from March to September 2020, we conservatively estimate that there have been 1,130 fewer cancers diagnosed pathologically than would have been expected. This is equivalent to 1 in 5 ‘missing’ cancers.

“The unfortunate reality is that these individuals will present weeks, months or years from now, with a cancer that is more advanced and therefore harder to treat.   While cancer services have started to recover, we expect that the improvements in cancer survival seen over recent years will have halted or reversed.”

Mary-Jo Thompson, Interim Assistant Director for Medical Specialities and Cancer at South Eastern Health Trust, also presented at the meeting. She updated members of the APGC on the significant progress with the development of the care and support chapter of the Department of Health Cancer Strategy.

Mrs Thompson said, “No two people have the same needs on their cancer journey and their individual care and support throughout is paramount, so it’s vital that this is reflected in the new Cancer Strategy. I’d like to thank all those involved in the development of this chapter including patients with lived experience of cancer, staff from the statutory and voluntary sector and a significant contribution from the charity sector.”

With the second wave again impacting on cancer related procedures, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, secretariat to the All Party Group on Cancer, is calling on the NI Executive to honour its commitment to improve cancer services and continue to support and protect cancer patients throughout the pandemic.

Dervilia Kernaghan, Head of Care Services, Cancer Focus NI, said:Cancer Focus NI

“We acknowledge the extreme pressures that the health service is under and welcome the Health Minister’s £12.1m funding to prioritise diagnostic services. However, we are worried about what lies ahead with the likelihood of further postponements if too many patients are admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and medical resources are diverted to deal with them.  On top of this there will be an inevitable backlog and wave of later stage diagnoses creating further pressure on our health system, as those diagnosed at a later stage often need more intensive and expensive treatment compared to those diagnosed at an early stage.

“Delays in treatment place enormous stress on patients and on their families, who are waiting and worrying. The support services that Cancer Focus NI offers, such as counselling and family support, have never been more in demand. And, like many cancers services, we had lengthy waiting times pre COVID. Many people are now often waiting months for a first appointment with a counsellor.

“We need a twin-track health system where we’re able to cope with demands of the pandemic and continue to treat routine conditions and offer services to people who need them, instead of an infection-control health service.  We need to see guidance around protecting routine and emergency procedures. More resources need to be made available on a long-term basis and built into the new Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland.”


For further information contact Louise Carey at Cancer Focus NI on 07784 362749 / 


Research reference:

Recent trends in the number of patients with pathology samples indicating cancer: Sept 2020, Dr Anna Gavin.