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Failing to address the cancer backlog could see survival rates fall for the first time in decades

4 min read

The Health and Social Care Select Committee has just held the last of its evidence sessions in its current inquiry into cancer services in England.

Since the inquiry began last year, witnesses have painted a worrying picture of the care cancer patients have received during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We heard of people feeling “abandoned by the health service throughout the pandemic—like someone has literally pulled a security blanket away from underneath me,” and another who felt she was “living under a death sentence”.

A lack of communication has left people stranded without a treatment pathway and no indication of when they would next see a specialist

Many of the usual targets, safeguards, and protections that the NHS has historically been able to provide have had to be paused or set aside in order to respond to the extreme pressures of the Covid pandemic.

Compounding this, we heard how a lack of communication has left people stranded without a treatment pathway and no indication of when they would next see a specialist. We also heard that the anxiety that such uncertainty carries with it is enormous.

Witness Shirley Cochrane told the committee about her experience over the past few months: “During the pandemic I have suffered with extreme anxiety. I have had trouble sleeping. I have been awake in the middle of the night checking for lumps, convinced that the cancer is back. It has had a huge impact on me mentally.”

Shirley was initially told to expect six-monthly check-ups for five years, as well as a yearly mammogram after finishing treatment for her breast cancer. However, at the start of the pandemic she received a letter informing her she would have to self-manage without checks. She described being “just left on my own to get on with it”.

As a cancer patient myself in 2019, I understand how vital the early check-ups are for giving a patient peace of mind.

The worst experience we heard about was that of Judith Nuptial, another cancer patient who gave evidence to the committee last week. She had a long fight for a diagnosis and treatment. Describing this fight, Judith told us: “I felt invisible in the process. They were constantly referring me on like I was a statistic and not a person.”

And on receiving chemotherapy during the pandemic, Judith said:

“…the pandemic made me feel like I was living under a death sentence. I had already been told that I had a death sentence, and then I was told that whatever time I had could not really be lived. If there was an issue, I could not see anybody. There was no personal touch, and that is hugely important.”

In our report into the NHS backlog last month, the committee concluded that cancer services were experiencing “significant and ongoing disruption”. The evidence we have been hearing as part of our separate cancer services inquiry has confirmed this view.

Across the UK, three million fewer people were invited for cancer screening between March 2020 and September 2020 and 45,000 fewer people began treatment for cancer in the year between March 2020 and March 2021 – the so-called “missing cancer patients.”

Targets are also being missed for people to be seen by a specialist within 2 weeks of referral from a GP. For example, the number of women with suspected breast cancer waiting more than two weeks has quadrupled since November 2021; resulting in anxiety, uncertainty and people’s lives being put at risk.

Even before the pandemic, England was lagging behind other countries and key targets were being missed. The 62-day target for patients to begin treatment following an urgent GP cancer referral has not been met since December 2015.

When we publish our report on this serious issue, it is crucial that the government listens to the recommendations of the committee and expands capacity in cancer services.

If it does not, Cancer Research UK estimates that we could see cancer survival rates going backwards for the first time in decades. This will be disastrous for the one in two of us who will develop cancer and will affect all of us who have had a family member diagnosed.


Barbara Keeley is the Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South.

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