Fewer newly-diagnosed cancer patients are seeking support in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a leading community charity has warned.
Stark figures just released show the number of patients making first calls to Chai Cancer Care has dropped by almost 70 percent, year-on-year, in the last 10 weeks.
Since 12 March, the charity has logged 17 first calls, compared with 55 over the same period last year.
Speaking to Jewish News on Tuesday, the charity’s chief executive Lisa Steele speculated the trend could be linked to a possible drop in diagnoses during the pandemic.
“I think it’s because people haven’t been going to the GP, so if they notice something, normally people would react and go to their GP and there would be a referral. Now it’s so difficult to get to the GP and when you get to your GP, it’s even more difficult to get a referral into hospital,” she said.
The chief executive urged Jewish News readers to consult their GP if they are seeing potential symptoms. “Please go to your GP and at Chai we will support you every step of the way, you and your family,” she said.
Dr Adrian Tookman, a palliative care physician and medical director at the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, told Jewish News: “There is no doubt that people are not going to their GPs in the way that they used to. There is no doubt that GPs are not seeing patients unless they really have to. There is a lot of telephone consultations, and there is national work that is being undertaken looking at the delay that is going to be in making diagnoses because people aren’t turning up at their GPs.”
He added: “Up until recently, there had been a delay in treating patients to do major procedures like surgery where they needed intensive care admission to try and protect these intensive care beds, and there’s been various mechanisms put in place to try and get over that. They’ve got surgical hubs in private hospitals for example to do urgent NHS operations.”
Dr Tookman urged members of the public experiencing symptoms like breast lumps or rectal bleeding to seek medical help. “The message is get to your GP because the care in the hospital setting is … being done in a way to make it safe for people to be seen,” he said.
A number of regional “Covid free cancer hubs” have been set up across England to carry out thousands of urgent operations, NHS England revealed last month.
The NHS clinical director for cancer warned at the time against waiting before seeking medical help. Professor Peter Johnson said: “From online consultations to the roll-out of cancer treatment hubs we are doing all we can to make sure patients receive the life-saving care that they need.
“The wishes of patients and their families will always come first, and we have to make sure that people feel safe coming to hospitals, but my message is clear: people should seek help as they always would.
“We know that finding cancer early gives us the best chance to cure it, and ignoring potential problems can have serious consequences now or in the future.”
But Chai Cancer Care’s figures also show the downward trend does not appear to include the charity’s other service users, such as family members and patients at a later stage in their cancer journey.
Chai Cancer Care’s total number of service users has risen to 3,828 people this year, up from 3,582 in 2019.
The charity, which was forced to close its centres amid the pandemic, is offering remote services to patients, including counselling, providing information, as well as meditation and mindfulness sessions.
“Even though our doors are closed, we are still continuing to support anyone who is affected by a cancer diagnosis. If you’re first diagnosed and don’t know where to go, it’s very confusing this whole new world of cancer and we can help navigate that and support the whole family through it,” Steele said.
Some existing patients’ cancer treatments have been stopped, she said, while others are not able to get scans and MRIs.
“[The drop in new referrals] doesn’t mean to say we’re not busy because the phone is going the whole time because we are supporting people who have got cancer already and they are coming to us because their cancer treatments have stopped, and they’re not getting scans and … any MRIs and they’re very concerned about their treatments,” she said.
The charity is expecting a “big rise” in demand for its services, including counselling and family therapy, once lockdown measures are lifted.