Patients with lung cancer are missing out on potential treatment due to delays in coming forward for diagnosis, Cancer Research UK is warning.
Figures analysed by the charity show that between March last year and this January, around 20,300 fewer people were urgently referred for suspected lung cancer in England compared to the same period the year before – a 34% drop.
Some 9% fewer people also started treatment for the disease between April and January, the equivalent of 2,600 patients.
Cancer Research UK surveyed 1,000 GPs across the UK in February on the reasons why diagnosing lung cancer had become more difficult during the pandemic.
It found that GPs were most concerned about patients being reluctant to attend hospital for tests (91% of GPs felt this was contributing to delays) and patients with symptoms not seeking help (78% felt this was contributing to delays).
Other factors included increased turnaround time for diagnostic tests (73%), difficulty in identifying symptoms via remote consultation (68%) and turnaround time for Covid-19 testing prior to people having lung tests (54%).
Lung cancer is the most deadly type but if it is diagnosed early when it is more treatable, 57% of people will survive for five years or more.
This compares with 3% of people diagnosed at the latest stage.
Dr Neil Smith, Cancer Research UK’s GP adviser, said: “It’s incredibly worrying that fewer lung cancer patients have started treatment since the beginning of the pandemic.
“While initial advice to stay at home and isolate if people had a new, continuous cough, could mean some people understandably delayed seeking help, we know delays to potentially life-saving treatment may mean lung cancer could progress.
“Covid-19 has created a perfect storm of problems, but the tide is turning as cases drop and vaccines are rolled out.
“Hospitals and surgeries have worked hard to make services as safe as possible, so it’s vital that people with symptoms, like a cough that lasts longer than three weeks, a change in a cough you’ve had for a while or coughing up blood, contact their GP and attend any follow-on tests.
“For those who’ve been unable to get through to your doctors’ surgery, I would encourage you to keep trying, GPs like me are still here to help you.”
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Cancer services have been hit hard by Covid-19, putting a lot of additional strain on people affected by cancer and their families.
“We’re hugely concerned for people who have symptoms but haven’t come forward or are putting off further tests.
“Government and NHS leaders must give cancer services the resources needed to ensure patients can swiftly receive tests and a prompt diagnosis.
“They must also continue public awareness campaigns to encourage people who notice any unusual changes to their body to contact their GP and reassure them that surgeries and hospitals are safe.”
Rebecca Davis, 35, an office worker from the Midlands and mother to Alexa, six, was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma ALK Positive lung cancer in August 2020.
She said: “I’ve always been prone to coughs, but I started to worry when I had one that just wouldn’t go away. I took a Covid test to rule it out and then made an appointment with my GP. I wasn’t nervous about going, I just wanted to get to the bottom of it.
“Initially I was diagnosed with pneumonia, but my GP wasn’t convinced and sent me for a repeat X-ray six weeks later. The results then led to a CT-scan that discovered my cancer.
“As I’m a non-smoker and so young, the thought of it being cancer never crossed my mind. It was the last thing I suspected in the world and it’s very rare for my age.
“I’m glad I sought help and I would encourage anyone in my situation to do the same. Don’t leave it until it’s too late. I’m now having targeted therapy which is helping and I’m lucky there are more treatment options available to me.”
Professor Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer, said: “Despite the pandemic, the majority of cancer treatment has continued with over 28,000 people starting treatment for lung cancer since last March and over 170,000 people referred for checks in January – more than twice the number of referrals compared to the first peak in April.
“Some people had understandable concerns about coming forward for care, and we have launched a campaign to encourage people to come forward for lung checks.
“If you have had a negative Covid test but are still coughing after three weeks, it is important to get checked. GPs and hospitals have adapted their services so that they are safe for you to be tested and treated.”