Far fewer newly-diagnosed cancer patients have sought support during the coronavirus pandemic, a leading community charity warned this week.
Latest figures show the number of patients making first calls to Chai Cancer Care dropped by almost 70 percent over the past 10 weeks compared with the same period last year.
Since 12 March the charity has logged just 17 first calls, compared with 55 over the same period last year.
Speaking to Jewish News, the charity’s chief executive, Lisa Steele, speculated that the trend could be linked to a drop in diagnoses during the pandemic.
“It’s because people haven’t been going to the GP, so if they notice something, normally people would react and there would be a referral,” she said. “Now it’s so difficult to get to the doctors and when you do, it’s even more difficult to get a referral into hospital.”
The chief executive urged Jewish News readers to consult their GP if they are seeing potential symptoms. “Please go to your doctor and at Chai we will support you every step of the way, you and your family,” Steele added.
Dr Adrian Tookman, a palliative care physician and medical director of the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, told Jewish News: “Cancer has not disappeared in the past 10 weeks, but people being too scared to visit a GP or hospital could well precipitate a ticking time bomb around our health, the impact of which will be felt long after the lockdown has passed.
“There is a lot of telephone consultations and there is national work that is being undertaken looking at the delay in making diagnoses because people aren’t turning up at their GPs.”
Dr Tookman 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.”
He urged members of the public experiencing symptoms such as 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.
Professor Peter Johnson, the NHS clinical director for cancer, warned at the time against waiting before seeking medical help.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
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.
The charity is expecting a “big rise” in demand for its services, including counselling and family therapy, once lockdown measures are lifted.