Health

Cancer patient backlog as high as 100,000 as crisis hits ‘point of no return’

It estimates that at least 86,000 patients remain in the backlog but the total is likely to be much higher. The charity says cancer services would need to be working at around 135 percent to clear the thousands of patients waiting for treatment over the next six months. But with services still not operating at full capacity it means that catching up is unlikely to happen until the second half of 2021.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the cancer backlog has already been “halved” will be “cleared within months”.

Despite this both he and Boris Johnson have come under mounting pressure to tackle the crisis and deliver an emergency boost to treatment capacity.

Last week the chairs of four Cancer related cross party parliamentary groups wrote to the Health secretary warning him of the “frightening scale of the cancer backlog”.

In addition, more than 300,000 people have signed the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign petition and 107 MPs have written to the Prime Minister demanding action.

Professor Pat Price, the chairwoman of Action Radiotherapy and founder of #CatchUpWithCancer, said: “We are past the point of no return for this cancer crisis. It’s no longer a question of ‘will cancer patients die unnecessarily’ but ‘how many will die unnecessarily?’.

“We have heard of so many patients who are not getting their appointments, scans and treatment for their cancer. There is so much suffering. Unless a massive effort is deployed right now, the only way the cancer backlog goes away is if people don’t get the diagnosis and treatment they need.”

Action Radiotherapy calculated its figures by comparing the number of treated patients quoted in various statements by Government ministers to previous years’ cancer data.

It estimates that the total number of new, relapsed and postponed cancer patients in the backlog for the UK is 86,122.

The figure is calculated to be 50,267 in England.

Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Radiotherapy, said: “We are really concerned that the Government and senior NHS leaders are not grasping the gravity of the situation.

“Just because the number of people waiting longer for cancer treatment after their cancer diagnosis is not as bad as it was, does not mean the backlog has gone away. It covers up the increasing build-up of patients still waiting for diagnosis. The progress quoted by Mr Hancock is only progress on those that were in the system.”

He added: “Every day we leave it, the cancer crisis grows. The Government need to implement a plan to not only return services to 100 per cent but boost diagnostic services and then boost treatment services, like radiotherapy, to help catch up with the backlog. The only other way to cope with the backlog is for treatment not to be given and patients die”.

The chairwoman of the APPG on Cancer, Tonia Antoniazzi,said: “We cannot be in denial about the numbers anymore. The only way this backlog goes away is with action and resources deployed to tackle it otherwise we will lose more people to cancer than the coronavirus itself. Every individual sat at home concerned about their treatment or diagnosis is crying out for reassurance and sadly none has been forthcoming”.

There are 367,000 new cancer cases every year in the UK, equal to around 1,000 a day.

It kills around 165,000 Britain every year.

Research predicts that people are more likely to die from cancer now than 15 years ago due to the effects of the pandemic.

Experts have warned delays to diagnosis and treatment could reverse years of progress in preventing cancer deaths.

Sarah Woolnough, the executive director of policy and information at Cancer Research UK, said: “COVID-19 has caused huge disruption to cancer care and has allowed an enormous backlog to build up over the last several months.

“Any delays are only going to have a negative effect on a patient’s chances of survival as it gives the potential for a tumour to grow and spread.”

She added: “The NHS is working hard to get services back up and running but there is a backlog of patients and there may well be further impact from a second wave.

“And any impact delays to treatment or diagnosis will have on cancer deaths might not be seen immediately.”

Aisling Burnand, the chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, said: “Charities expect to spend £310 million less on medical research over the next year, meaning fewer opportunities to save and improve lives.

“It will take over four years for charity research spend to fully recover but a decade to rebuild what will be lost in terms of capacity and capability.

“Medical research charities are doing all they can to continue their life-changing research, but they cannot do it alone.

“That’s why we’re urgently calling on Government to commit to a Life Sciences-Charity Partnership Fund to bridge the projected charity research spend gap.

“By investing in charity-funded research, Government can help medical research charities deliver a better future for patients across the UK.”

It comes as the leader of Britain’s doctors called on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to fulfil his promise of giving the NHS “whatever it needs”.

In a speech delivered to grassroots doctors and medical students Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of council at the British Medical Association, warns of the impact of “the triple whammy” of the non-COVID backlog, the ongoing risk of a second spike and winter pressures.

He will highlight that, as the NHS entered the pandemic without sufficient capacity, regular services were forced to be halted during the pandemic, during which it became “primarily a national COVID service”.

Mr Hancock said the government is already committing billions of pounds to help the NHS that will help bolster cancer services: “Everyone who goes through a devastating cancer diagnosis must have access to the best possible treatment, and throughout this pandemic, patients can be reassured that cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained an absolute priority. Thanks to the tireless work of our NHS staff, patients have continued to be referred for urgent cancer checks and to start treatment with numbers now increasing to near pre-pandemic levels.

“To support this, we recently announced an additional £3billion for winter preparations, and have committed £300 million capital funding to upgrade A&Es, expanding waiting areas and treatment cubicles which will continue to bolster these vital cancer services.

The NHS is here for those that need it, and I urge people to go and see their GP if they notice something unusual as catching any cancer early means a higher chance of successful treatment.”

Comment

Cancer did not stop when COVID struck.

It progressed in tens of thousands of people around the country.

As a result, there has never been a more concerning time in my career as an oncologist than today.

After months of warnings that haven’t been heeded, I believe that we have reached the point of “no return” in terms of avoiding a COVID-induced cancer crisis.

It is now not a case of whether cancer patients will die unnecessarily – but rather how many cancer patients will die unnecessarily.

And assertions in Parliament that we are making good progress in tackling the cancer backlog are adding to the problem by giving a false sense of security.

It simply isn’t good enough to try to get cancer services back to pre COVID levels.

We need to get them “super boosted” to at least 135 percent of pre COVID levels if we are to tackle the true backlog.

When COVID hit, measures were understandably taken to protect vulnerable cancer patients from the virus.

These resulted in thousands of delayed, deferred and cancelled treatments and screenings. But services have not get back up and running quickly enough, hence the backlog.

Frighteningly, even today, cancer services are still not yet back to 100 percent of their pre- COVID levels, never mind the super boosted level of 135 percent.

Without urgent action, including very substantial investment in COVID friendly treatments like advanced radiotherapy, the only other way the backlog goes away is if patients die in significant numbers.

No doctor wants to be at the bedside of a patient that is lost unnecessarily.

People care about this issue hugely.

More than 300,000 of the public have signed the #CatchUpWithCancer Change.org/catchupwithcancer petition and 107 MPs have written to the Prime Minister demanding action.

I urge the Government to cut through any internal advice they are getting that “it’s all okay”.

It absolutely isn’t.

But on the positive side, there’s a whole oncology community out there that wants to help.

Give us the tools, cut us free from the bureaucracy and let us fight this backlog with the same level of intensity that was deployed against the virus itself.

Our cancer patients deserve nothing less.

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