Lung cancer referrals fell by a THIRD during the Covid pandemic

Lung cancer referrals fell by a THIRD during the Covid pandemic: Expert blames No10’s stay at home message for 20,000 fewer appointments for patients with tell-tale signs of killer disease

  • Referrals for lung cancer fell by 34 per cent between March and January 2021
  • 9 per cent less people started treatment for disease between April and January 
  • Dr Neil Smith said the stay at home message may have delayed diagnoses 

Thousands of patients with lung cancer are missing out on potential treatment due to delays in diagnosis during the pandemic.

Figures analysed by Cancer Research UK show that between March and January, referrals for lung cancer fell by 34 per cent.

In total the number of urgent GP referrals for patients with suspected lung cancer fell by 20,300 compared to the same period last year.

Some 9 per cent fewer people also started treatment for the disease between April and January, the equivalent of 2,600 patients.

The charity also surveyed 1,000 GPs across the UK in February on the reasons why diagnosing lung cancer had become more difficult during the pandemic.

It found that nine in ten GPs were most concerned about patients being reluctant to attend hospital for tests and more than three quarters felt patients with symptoms were not seeking help.

Figures analysed by Cancer Research UK show that thousands of patients with lung cancer are missing out on potential treatment due to delays in diagnosis during the pandemic

Dr Neil Smith (pictured), Cancer Research UK’s GP adviser, said the stay at home message delayed diagnoses

Lung cancer is the most deadly type of cancer but if it is diagnosed early when it is more treatable, 57 per cent of people will survive for five years or more.

Retired paramedic, 48, who was denied face-to-face appointment with his GP because of Covid pandemic is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer

Steve McGregor, 48, started having difficulties breathing last March and tried to get a face-to-face appointment at Trinity Medical Centre in Blythe Bridge, Stoke-on-Trent.

But restrictions on appointments because of the pandemic meant he had to wait until May to get an X-ray and phone consultation where he was told there were no issues.

Unconvinced of their findings because of his background in healthcare, he finally got a scan at Stafford’s County Hospital in November, when he was told he had inoperable, terminal lung cancer. 

Steve McGregor, 48, started having difficulties breathing last March and tried to get a face-to-face appointment at Trinity Medical Centre in Blythe Bridge, Stoke-on-Trent

Mr McGregor, who worked for West Midlands Ambulance Service, now believes the cancer could have been operable had it been detected sooner.

The father-of-one said: ‘I noticed changes in my breathing which were quite concerning. I felt like I couldn’t inflate the upper left lung. I felt like I couldn’t oxygenate effectively.

‘I was concerned I may suffer hypoxia in the night. I did say that I had a concern that I may stop breathing.’

But Mr McGregor claims his GP refused to see or refer him for eight months despite making 20 phone calls to the surgery.

He was however able to get a face-to-face GP appointment following the scan at Stafford Hospital.

‘I have now been diagnosed with an inoperable lung cancer, I have never smoked and have been fit and well, I am only 48 years old,’ he added. 

When approached, his GP Dr Bhalchandra Narayan Kulkarni said: ‘For reasons of patient confidentiality the practice is unable to discuss any aspects of patient care.’

West Midlands Ambulance Service were also contacted for comment. 

This compares with just three per cent of people diagnosed at the latest stage.

Dr Neil Smith, Cancer Research UK’s GP adviser, said: ‘It’s incredibly worrying that fewer lung cancer patients have started treatment since the beginning of the pandemic.

‘While initial advice to stay at home and isolate if people had a new, continuous cough, could mean some people understandably delayed seeking help, we know delays to potentially life-saving treatment may mean lung cancer could progress.

‘Covid-19 has created a perfect storm of problems, but the tide is turning as cases drop and vaccines are rolled out.

‘Hospitals and surgeries have worked hard to make services as safe as possible, so it’s vital that people with symptoms, like a cough that lasts longer than three weeks, a change in a cough you’ve had for a while or coughing up blood, contact their GP and attend any follow-on tests.

‘For those who’ve been unable to get through to your doctors’ surgery, I would encourage you to keep trying, GPs like me are still here to help you.’

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: ‘Cancer services have been hit hard by Covid-19, putting a lot of additional strain on people affected by cancer and their families.

‘We’re hugely concerned for people who have symptoms but haven’t come forward or are putting off further tests.

‘Government and NHS leaders must give cancer services the resources needed to ensure patients can swiftly receive tests and a prompt diagnosis.

‘They must also continue public awareness campaigns to encourage people who notice any unusual changes to their body to contact their GP and reassure them that surgeries and hospitals are safe.’

Rebecca Davis, 35, an office worker from the Midlands and mother to Alexa, six, was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma ALK Positive lung cancer in August 2020.

She said: ‘I’ve always been prone to coughs, but I started to worry when I had one that just wouldn’t go away. I took a Covid test to rule it out and then made an appointment with my GP. I wasn’t nervous about going, I just wanted to get to the bottom of it.

‘Initially I was diagnosed with pneumonia, but my GP wasn’t convinced and sent me for a repeat X-ray six weeks later. The results then led to a CT-scan that discovered my cancer.

‘As I’m a non-smoker and so young, the thought of it being cancer never crossed my mind. It was the last thing I suspected in the world and it’s very rare for my age.

‘I’m glad I sought help and I would encourage anyone in my situation to do the same. Don’t leave it until it’s too late. I’m now having targeted therapy which is helping and I’m lucky there are more treatment options available to me.’

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer said: ‘Despite the pandemic, the majority of cancer treatment has continued with over 28,000 people starting treatment for lung cancer since last March and over 170,000 people referred for checks in January – more than twice the number of referrals compared to the first peak in April.

‘Some people had understandable concerns about coming forward for care, and we have launched a campaign to encourage people to come forward for lung checks, so if you have had a negative Covid test but are still coughing after three weeks, it is important to get checked – GPs and hospitals have adapted their services so that they are safe for you to be tested and treated.’

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