Progress in reducing deaths from breast cancer has been put at risk because of lockdown and the prioritisation of Covid above all other diseases (as well as the reluctance of people to “burden” the NHS thanks, in part, to Government messaging), with more than 10,000 fewer patients in England alone having started treatment in the past year compared to the year before. The Guardian has the story.
According to an analysis of NHS England figures by Cancer Research U.K. (CRUK), about 38,000 fewer cancer patients began treatment between April 2020 and March 2021, compared with the same period a year earlier. Just under 28% of these were breast cancer patients, equating to about 10,600 people.
With CRUK noting that 2018 figures suggest about 15% of new cancers are breast cancer, it seems the disease has been disproportionately affected by the Covid pandemic, with the charity saying the majority of those who have missed out on breast cancer treatment are likely to be people who have yet to be diagnosed, with the vast majority in an early stage of the disease.
Cancer that is detected early is generally more treatable.
The charity said the cancers may not have been picked up in part because of the pause in breast cancer screening during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to another charity, Breast Cancer Now, almost one million British women, including about 838,000 in England, missed a breast cancer screening appointment during the height of the first wave of coronavirus.
However, CRUK said other factors behind the drop may include the reluctance of some to seek help for symptoms when the Covid waves were at their peaks, either because of concerns about burdening the NHS or because they were afraid of catching Covid.
The charity said the figures suggested progress in reducing breast cancer deaths could be at risk: while the disease is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in the U.K., mortality rates have dropped almost 40% since the 1970s.
Dr Ajay Aggarwal, a Consultant Clinical Oncologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS trust, whose own work has suggested diagnosis delays caused by the pandemic may lead to 3,500 deaths in England from four main cancers in the next five years, said the latest figures confirmed what was feared at the beginning of the Covid outbreak when cancer services were significantly disrupted.
“This also confirms work recently undertaken in south-east London, where during the first wave of the pandemic, across a region of 1.7 million people, there were 30% fewer diagnoses of breast cancer,” he said. “This is likely to worsen when considering the cumulative impact of the second wave.”
He said similar trends were being seen across a range of other cancers. “For those eventually presenting, the data suggests – and clinical experience – that patients are presenting with more advanced, complex disease, which is either incurable or associated with worse prognosis compared to if they had been diagnosed earlier.”
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