We must get back to diagnosing cancer…fast

We must get back to diagnosing cancer…fast

Many people across the country will be feeling relieved and perhaps even rejoicing at the further easing of lockdown measures which will allow for holidays to select destinations with so-called ‘air-bridges’ in place. Whilst this is indeed great news that will no doubt boost the nation’s morale, a very serious health crisis is unfolding before our eyes. 

Cancer testing and diagnosis have plummeted throughout the UK with potentially far-reaching consequences in the months and years to come. We saw how cancer services were badly hit during the peak of the pandemic, with many patients seeing their treatments delayed and referrals dropping by up to 70%, contributing to a huge cancer backlog. But the continuing fall in screening and diagnosis is now a source of great concern and we must act urgently to turn the tide.

There are reports that biopsies are running at 30% of normal. There are over 840,000 people waiting for diagnostic tests and over half of them have been waiting for more than six weeks which puts them into risky territory as far as cancer outcomes are concerned. 

Early diagnosis remains the most effective tool in the fight against cancer and can make the difference between life and death. It can also have a significant bearing on a patient’s long-term quality of life. That is why the NHS’s 10-year plan placed early diagnosis at the heart of its cancer strategy.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with cancer services across the country. The government and the NHS have been trying its best to utilise all the resources at its disposal to overcome the backlog, including through collaborations between the public and independent sectors at cost price. But this has not yet had the desired effect.

We need an immediate action plan that will significantly increase testing and diagnosis of cancer. Achieving early cancer diagnosis has been a challenging goal even in normal times. An emergency effort is now required. Like with COVID, testing and diagnosis is our first line of defence against cancer. We already have dedicated diagnostic facilities in the UK and the demand for such facilities had been growing even before the pandemic. These must be utilised to their fullest extent.

A public awareness campaign is also necessary. Despite the backlog for diagnostic test results, many people are still too afraid of going to a hospital or surgery to get themselves checked for cancer for fear of catching the virus. We must move on from this fear. Failure to diagnose and treat cancer can be far more costly for your health than Covid-19.

As we continue to return to normality after three months of severe restrictions, we must also try to bring some level of normality to our health and wellbeing. That includes being vigilant against other potentially fatal diseases such as cancer.

By Mike Moran, chief executive officer, Rutherford Health.