1 June 2020

Around 2.4 million people could be waiting for vital cancer services as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, new estimates suggest.

The figures, reported by the Daily Mail, suggest there may be a significant backlog of millions of people needing urgent screening, treatment or support as governments and the NHS across the UK consider plans to recover cancer services following the peak of the pandemic.

Following calls to its Helpline and a new survey of over 580 people affected by breast cancer in the UK, Breast Cancer Now also warned that thousands of women with incurable breast cancer are experiencing significant fears for their ongoing survival amid delays to treatment, scans and access to clinical trials during the coronavirus outbreak.

The charity’s survey found a significant number of secondary breast cancer patients had seen their chemotherapy or targeted therapy changed or paused temporarily to boost their immune systems, leading to periods of weeks or potentially months without treatments that had been helping to keep their disease stable.

While many patients reported that their treatment and care had been unaffected, others had seen monitoring scans delayed by up to three months, leaving them uncertain as to whether their current treatment may be working or whether their cancer may be progressing. In total, of 190 respondents living with incurable secondary breast cancer, nearly a quarter (24%) had seen delays or cancellations to their potentially life-extending treatment – with a further 10% having their monitoring scans delayed or cancelled.

In addition, NHS breast screening ― which prevents around 1,300 deaths from breast cancer in the UK ― has had to be suspended in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and some Trusts in England are also currently unable to provide the service. 

The recruitment of new patients to many clinical trials has also been paused, which could mean some patients are not able to access certain experimental drugs to help extend or improve their lives and could ultimately see research progress stall in developing effective new medicines.

Breast Cancer Now has seen a huge surge in enquiries to its online Ask Our Nurses service with questions and concerns about coronavirus, with a 60% increase in March 2020. Since the outbreak began, the charity has received over 2,700 enquiries to its Helpline and Ask Our Nurses service in total, and Breast Cancer Now’s patient information about coronavirus has been viewed over 134,000 times. Almost half of enquiries to the charity’s specialist nurses for support over the last two months have been about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, the research and care charity, said:

“It’s extremely concerning to hear of the major impacts the pandemic continues to have on thousands of people affected by cancer. The outbreak has led to many people’s cancer treatment being paused or delayed, an extremely worrying drop in the number of people being referred to see a cancer specialist, thousands of screening appointments being cancelled and some clinical trials being paused.

“Governments and the NHS across the UK must now turn their attention to recovering cancer services and we need to see clear plans to ensure that cancer referrals and diagnostic and treatment services can return to pre-pandemic levels.

“We have to ensure all those patients whose appointments, screening and treatments have been delayed are seen as soon as possible in covid free hubs or sites, to prevent the current changes to care from affecting patients’ chances of survival in the long-term. But to catch-up on this backlog, we urgently need to see short and long-term plans to ensure there will be sufficient capacity in the workforce to meet this huge influx in demand.

“The NHS Breast Screening Programme is critical to early detection in the UK, preventing around 1,300 deaths from breast cancer each year, and we hope this crucial service will be able to fully resume as soon as possible. We now urgently need to see clear plans put in place across the NHS to recover the screening programme and diagnostic services, to minimise any delays for women and men and to ensure the already stretched NHS workforce can cope.

“Crucially, as cancer catch-up strategies for the next stage of the pandemic are developed, it is essential that the often-forgotten needs of patients with incurable and advanced cancer are recognised and addressed. Without clear plans to restore treatment, services and trials as soon as it is safe and feasible to do so, thousands of people with advanced cancer could miss out on precious extra time with their loved ones, which would be absolutely heart-breaking.”