Almost a third of cancer patients have reported receiving worse care since COVID-19 began, according to a new survey commissioned by Cancer Research UK.
Whilst NHS staff have worked tirelessly throughout the crisis and many cancer patients have reported positive experiences of COVID-19 safety protocols, the impact of COVID-19 on cancer services and cancer patients has been devastating.
The charity hopes these figures will encourage governments to secure more long-term funding for cancer care in the UK.
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “COVID-19 hit the health system hard and cancer services suffered as a result, but even before the pandemic struck cancer targets were not being met. And now, for the first time in decades, we’re faced with the fact that cancer survival could go backwards.”
What did the survey find?
900 cancer patients were surveyed between December 2020 and March 2021. Of those asked, 29% experienced delays, cancellations or changes to their treatment.
More than 8 in 10 (84%) had recalled their care as being ‘very good’ pre-pandemic. However, almost 3 in 10 (31%) have subsequently downgraded their rating since the start of the pandemic.
Moreover, around 1 in 10 (12%) felt their previously ‘very good’ care had slipped to ‘average’ or below.
Emotional toll on cancer patients
For many patients, the uncertainty and fast-changing nature of the pandemic has led to an increased emotional toll on top of an already stressful diagnosis.
Around two-thirds of cancer patients reported feeling more ‘frustrated’ and ‘anxious’ since the pandemic began.
For Lorraine, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2014, the pandemic has made her anxiety worse.
Whilst her treatment has thankfully continued during this period, she is worried about what the end of restrictions will mean for her overall health.
She said: “I count myself so lucky that my chemo treatments have continued.
“But I am very anxious about the removal of face masks and social distancing. As someone that is vulnerable it feels like the Government is putting the needs of businesses and commerce ahead of the safety of people, and this feels like a step backwards.”
Some patients have faced additional trauma throughout the pandemic, with decisions around cancer treatments and surgery being made at the 11th hour.
One patient with breast cancer said: “On the day [of my mastectomy] the surgeon told me if [there were] no beds [I’d have to have] reconstruction at a later date… I was devastated.
Half an hour before surgery a bed became available, and my full surgery went ahead.”
The survey did also have some reassuring findings, with most cancer patients reporting positive experiences of COVID-19 safety measures. 89% of patients rated as ‘positive’ their experience of COVID-safe spaces, wearing masks (80%) and home and community-based treatment (75%).
Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician said remarkable adaptability and resilience has been shown by NHS staff, with hospitals providing COVID-19 free spaces and tele consultations.
“But we also know cancer patients faced a lot more uncertainty than usual and last-minute changes to their care, as a result of the pandemic. Although there are challenges in the health system, it’s very important that anyone who has noticed an unusual change in their body, gets in touch with their GP.
“And if it’s tricky getting an appointment, do keep trying because your GP wants to hear from you. Early diagnosis can make all the difference.”
The crisis is far from over
Monthly numbers of patients starting treatment are now similar to, or slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels, but this was not the case for most of the pandemic, with thousands fewer patients starting treatment during the pandemic than expected.
And more work will need to be done to ensure that the tens of thousands of people still waiting for tests and treatments are able to access them as soon as possible.
Cancer Research UK continues to support the government’s ambition of diagnosing 3 in 4 patients with cancer at an early stage by 2028. But this will only be possible with significant investment in cancer services.
Mitchell added: “I’m asking Sajid Javid to make it his mission to improve cancer survival in this country, by securing long term investment to sufficiently fund the cancer workforce and ensure the NHS has the equipment it needs to diagnose more patients early.”